Friday, 25 August 2006

Lemming (2005)

Forget about snakes on a plane! There are lemmings in your sewage pipes!

Hollywood is incapable of making truly frightening horror movies, and has been ransacking the Asian horror cabinet for years, with mixed results. The final insult to the genre might not come from unimaginative remakes like The Omen, incompetent offerings like When a Stranger Calls, or wholesale plunder like The Ring and Dark Waters, but from French filmmakers like Dominik Moll.

Nominally described as a psychological thriller (the French cannot appear crass, after all), Lemming recalls thrillers from the 1930s-1950s and animal horror films from the 1970s-80s. Imagine, if you will, that Jaws, Piranha, Crocodile, Anaconda, were made by the same director who gave us Vertigo and Rear Window. After all, he did make The Birds! Imagine then, a thriller whose tension is built up and sustained like a horror movie. There. You’d end up with Lemming.

Alain (Laurent Lucas) and Bernadette Getty (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are the model yuppie couple living in the suburbs, the picture of Barbie and Ken doll marital bliss and middle class comfort, not unlike Jeff and Lisa from Rear Window. Alain is an inventor with a high tech French firm that appears transplanted from Silicon Valley, and his latest invention, a miniature flying webcam, puts him in the boss’s good books. Richard Pollock (Andre Dussolier) is such a friendly boss that he invites himself and his wife Alice (Charlotte Rampling) to dinner with the Gettys. When Alice uses the occasion to stage the latest round in her long-festering marital war with Richard, shows her hostility towards the plastic couple, and then proceeds to blow her brains out in their spare bedroom, everything starts taking an uncomfortable turn.

Does Richard really visit callgirls openly? Did he really attempt to kill Alice 20 years ago? Will this vision of a unhappily married – but still married – couple serve as a roadmap for the future of the Gettys? And what of the mysterious rodent Alain excavates from the kitchen sink pipe? The lemming, a creature only found in the arctic region, comes to life from that watery grave, but no one knows how it could show up in France. That’s not the most pressing mystery, because Alian needs to know why Bernadette is slowly taking on the behaviour and characteristics of Alice. But should he be paying more attention to the lemming instead?

Lemming would be an poseurish angsty urban drama about bickering couple without its soundtrack and Dominik Moll’s horror movie sensibilities. Instead, Moll turns the potential existential angst and mutates it into a harrowing horror thriller. You will not fail to notice the how the camera follows the couple along the corridors through their urban house, as if something horrifying might jump at them in the dark. You will not fail to notice the soundtrack, alternating between unsettling ambient noise and avant garde compositions by David Sinclair Whitaker, which builds up the tension even without cranking up the volume or resorting to screeching violins. And yes, you will not fail to notice that each time Dominik Moll builds up to an emotional crescendo with the music and camerawork, actually delivers the scares, and lets the camera linger on a few more seconds for the unpleasant implications to sink in to the audience. There isn’t a single cheap thrill or false alarm here. Unlike any Hollywood "horror movie". You will not fail to notice the close ups on their faces, several sequences in almost pitch black rooms, and several long and wideangle shots that serve to unsettle viewers, inject discomfort, doubt and paranoia, or that this camera style has been rarely seen since the golden age of horror, or since Hitchcock wove his magic.

What makes the horror movie more than watchable is its construction as a simultaneous thriller, and the spot-on casting of the 4 principal actors, who have never acted together before. Rampling delivers the chills on and offscreen, Gainsbourg is the object of pity and horror, Dussolier cautions in svelte, suave tones, while Lucas is the Everyman and central character through which the audience views the movie and experiences the escalation of evil, horror and paranoia.

The horror in Lemming lies in can happen to the perfect marriage of Alain and Bernadette, in what could have happened to Alice, and what is happening to Bernadette – and perhaps Alain. Moll refuses to provide easy explanations and neat endings, and as a result, the horror never fails to let up even in the final shot of the film, even after its supposed resolution. Audiences will either love or hate the unique melding of Hitchcockian thriller and classic horror, as much as they will either love the avant garde soundscape or find it incredibly cheesy – mostly because it has fallen out of fashion. Fans of classic thrillers from the 1950s will probably have an easier time identifying with the movie.

First published at incinemas on 31 August 2006

No comments: