A happy young couple's relationship is buffeted by unsettling developments, including a visit from the title rodent, in "Lemming." Five years after "With a Friend Like Harry...", helmer and co-writer Dominik Moll presents another tension-filled, off-kilter riff on the interactions of two couples. The first reel is terrific and the subsequent hour is consistently intriguing.

A happy young couple’s relationship is buffeted by unsettling developments, including a visit from the title rodent, in “Lemming.” Five years after “With a Friend Like Harry…”, helmer and co-writer Dominik Moll presents another tension-filled, off-kilter riff on the interactions of two couples. The first reel is terrific and the subsequent hour is consistently intriguing. The remainder of lengthy pic, however, will either entertain or frustrate viewers, depending on how much of an appetite for possibly supernatural digressions they bring to the theater. Pic — which opens Cannes in Competition — should connect with filmgoers who don’t find ambiguity off-putting.

Spooky, intellectually titillating and darkly funny pic is definitely the kind of film where the less you know going in, the better. It’s not so much that there are twists or secrets that shouldn’t be revealed prematurely — although there is one such zinger. Rather, the entire venture is an accretion of odd behavior intermingled with level-headed behavior until something (or several somethings) has got to give.

Alain Getty (Laurent Lucas) and his wife of three years, Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), moved to the modern community of Bel Air somewhere in southern France just three months ago. Alain, who designs ingenious remote control systems, enjoys his new job as an engineer at the hi-tech firm owned and run by Richard Pollock (Andre Dussollier). Alain’s latest invention is a surveillance camera encased in a tiny helicopter that can fly around checking for leaks or other potential household problems.

Alain’s temperament matches the rigors of his profession. He’s smart, disciplined and believes in technology, science and self-control. His marriage to even-tempered Benedicte is playful and lovey-dovey.

But the night Alain’s boss Pollock and his wife Alice (a delectably unnerving Charlotte Rampling) come to dinner is, as Alain’s brief voiceover explains, the moment things begin to unravel.

The Pollocks are late and when they do arrive, helmer makes the most of awkward silences and a veneer of good manners. Alice Pollock wears dark glasses indoors at night and holds herself like a hostile zombie. If she ever had social filters, she shed them long ago.

They’re barely into the appetizer when Alice voices some brutally inappropriate allegations about her seemingly quite pleasant husband. The Pollocks leave before the main course.

Unable to sleep after they leave, Alain sets about fixing the clogged kitchen sink. He finds a furry, hamster-like critter blocking the drainage pipe.

The next day at the office, Pollock apologizes to Alain for the awkward evening, explaining that his wife is “eccentric.” But eccentricity alone can’t explain her behavior, which takes a bold and troubling turn that very night.

Meanwhile, Benedicte has taken the not-quite-dead rodent to a vet, who tells her it’s a lemming — and that lemmings live exclusively in Scandinavia. How could this one have made its way into a drain pipe in southern France? As it turns out, that enigma is easier to explain than the mechanisms that spark and regulate human guilt, desire and sexual fantasy.

Bulk of narrative is wide open to interpretation, admiringly echoing certain of Kubrick’s works in places and invoking a debt to the canon of usurped-identity films in others. Most of the time, Moll’s visual assurance — and black humor — helps even familiar-seeming territory feel original. But the progressively stranger tale loses some of its initial grip in final third.

Central quartet meshes admirably, with Rampling irreplaceable and Dussollier putting just the right spin on his straight-shooting, guilt-free businessman. Sound design — including score — is aces.

Lemming

France

Production

A Diaphana Films release of a Diaphana Films presentation of a Diaphana Films, France 3 Cinema production with participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, CNC and with support from the Ile-de-France Region in association with Sofica Sogecinema. (International sales: Celluloid Dream, Paris.) Produced by Michel Saint-Jean. Directed by Dominik Moll. Screenplay, Moll, Gilles Marchand.

Crew

Camera (color), Jean-Marc Fabre; editor, Mike Fromentin; music, David Sinclair Whitaker; production designer, Michel Barthelemy; costume designers, Virginie Montel, Isabelle Pannetier; sound (Dolby), Francois Morel, Gerard Hardy, Gerard Lamps; Digital effects supervisor, Pascal Laurent; assistant director, Rafaele Ravinet-Virbel. Reviewed at Club Marbeuf screening room, Paris, May 6, 2005. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Opener, competing.) Running time: 130 MIN.

With

Alain Getty - Laurent Lucas Benedicte Getty - Charlotte Gainsbourg Alice Pollock - Charlotte Rampling Richard Pollock - Andre Dussollier
With: Jacques Bonnaffe, Veronique Affholder, Michel Cassagne.

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