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DIR: Dominik Moll
What’s It All About?
Young couple Alain (Laurent Lucas) and Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg) have Alain’s boss Richard (Andre Dussolier) and his wife Alice (Charlotte Rampling) to supper. Alice behaves appallingly. The next day at his office she apologises to Alain, and then tries to seduce him. Folowing this she visits Benedicte at home, tells her that Alain resisted the pass she made at him, and subsequently shoots herself after napping in Benedicte’s spare room. This sets off a chain of events in which Benedicte’s personality begins to change almost beyond recognition.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
While arthouse distributors Artificial Eye mounted a decent campaign for Lemming it was always going to be a tough sell; a dark low key thriller played out largely in conversation and relationships rather than in action, and subtitled into the bargain. It didn’t get very wide distribution outside London.
Why Should You See It?
Dominik Moll is an intriguing filmmaker. His two major films to date (this one and future WHYS…? subject Harry, He’s Here to Help) both deal in unsettling the audience, not bombarding us with visceral sensation, but rather setting us on edge from the outset, and skilfully keeping us there until the credits roll.
Lemming begins with misdirection, it seems, when Alice attempts to seduce Alain, and then goes to visit Benedicte, that this is going to be a film more along the lines of Fatal Attraction or Anna M, but the unexpected twist throws everything up in the air. You’re never quite sure where Lemming is headed after that, but it has a dark undertone that suggests that wherever it is going the journey will be intriguing and the destination unexpected, and so it proves.
I can’t say much about the key personality shift in Benedicte, but what is really chilling about the way the film approaches it is that there seems to be no real reason for it, natural or supernatural. Obviously this key twist makes heavy demands on Charlotte Gainsbourg as an actress. I’ve long been a fan of Gainsbourg’s, and thought her due far more popular acclaim than she gets. Lemming is a perfect example of why I feel that way, her performance is an extreme journey, but one she achieves in small, methodical and subtle steps. During the film she goes from being a very sweet and open character, happy and very much in love with her husband (very close, actually, to the impression one gets of her in real life) and eventually becomes a hard faced ice queen. It’s a brilliant performance, and clever in both its conviction and its ambiguity.
Moll also draws fine work from the rest of his small cast. Laurent Lucas does a fine line in both bafflement and loss, Andre Dussollier’s initially avuncular boss reveals more layers as the film goes on, and Charlotte Rampling’s performance; as cold, hard and sharp as a knife, is sensational, powering the film even in her absence.
As well as being a deeply unsettling work, Lemming has a streak of dark comedy running through it. Most notable are the supremely awkward dinner scene and an hilarious exchange in which Richard essentially berate Alain for not sleeping with Alice when she asked, and this mix of tones (along with the strange little subplot which gives the film its title) only adds to the strange feeling that the film produces for its viewers.
Lemming isn’t really for beginners. It’s a strange film, and one that has little in the way of big dramatic events. It is slow, glacial at times, but it is worth seeing for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s outstanding performance alone (particularly in the scene in which Benedicte confronts her husband about the night Alice made a pass at him), and it has much else to recommend it, not least Dominik Moll’s supremely controlled, almost Hitchcockian, direction.
How Can You See It?
The UK DVD from Artificial Eye has a fine transfer and some solidly informative extras. It is also available on US DVD, but I’m not sure whether that edition has extras.
Next Week: WHYS…? pays tribute to the late Sidney Lumet, with his last film; BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD.