The plight and paranoia of young marriage (and adulthood) has found a giddy practitioner in German director Dominik Moll. Moll's second film, With a Friend Like Harry..., took a very direct approach to the idea by using the return of a high school friend as a way to look into the boredom and grind of young parenthood, while also using the friend's sensuous fiancé as a point of catharsis. However simple that may seem, Harry was one of the best films of 2000, and now Moll is back with a much trickier proposition in Lemming.
Alain Getty (Laurent Lucas) has a nice job at an engineering firm where he is designing a new kind of webcam that can help in everyday tasks. His wife Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg) hasn't found a job yet and is still unpacking their things when Alain agrees to allow his boss and his wife to come over for a dinner. His boss, Richard (Andre Dussollier), arrives at the house with a jovial aura but his wife (Charlotte Rampling) has the disposition of a scorpion. That night, they find an injured lemming in their sink pipe. Since a lemming tends to only live in Scandinavia, it freaks Alain out big time. Things don't get any better when the boss' wife commits suicide in the Gettys' house, which prompts Benedicte to take a very strange turn in mood.
You could cast Lemming off as a simple story of ghosts and possession, but Moll takes these ideas into realms of unimaginable fright. The key to the film is in Moll's lead actor, Lucas. His face has an unbelievable ability to shift from boredom to distrust to absolute terror with no less than a flicker of the eyeball or the twitch of a cheek muscle. Rampling, the old pro, has little screen time but is easily the other stand-out. She takes in the lunacy and seriousness of her character, mixing them into a truly scary performance.
There is certainly some hesitancy in describing this story as Hitchcockian since the word is used so often to describe modern thrillers (it's used in three separate quotes on my The Beat That My Heart Skipped poster). However, Moll has mastered a way of blending mirth and marvel in a way that Hitchcock was toying with in Vertigo and The Birds. The scene where Lucas walks in on a kitchen full of lemmings can be described as nothing short of terrifying. Why? A lemming is a small rodent that resembles a slightly smaller, arguably uglier hamster. It is nothing that should scare any adult ever. The way Moll stages it, as Lucas slowly walks from checking on his wife to the kitchen filled with the things, shows a minimalist, extraordinarily efficient way of building tension and paying it off in an unexpected way.
The plot shrouds itself in darker symbolism as Benedicte begins to sleep with Alain's boss. Auguries of marital hatred and fantasies of lust and murder are brought up as being expected. Moll's tight, terrific film holds the viewer in a state of limbo where one can not truly grasp what he's getting at until about two hours after you exit the theater. It's rare that a thriller holds us in such unawareness while still completely immersing us in story and character. In fact, it's probably not completely unlike being married.