Handsome French couple Alain and Bénédicte Getty invite Alain’s new boss Richard and his wife over for a meal. Their guests run so late the handsome couple are about to give up and have a quickie on the sofa when the doorbell rings. Richard is very embarrassed but agrees to continue with the evening, returning from his idling car with the emotionally skelletal Alice, who lurks narrowly behind her sunglasses at the dinner table until mentioning her husband’s penchent for whores, hence their tardiness. Richard is very embarrassed, unsurprisingly, as are their hosts. Then she throws her wine in his face. Dinner ends abruptly. That night, Alain finds a dead lemming clogged down the kitchen sink U-bend.
Lemming begins with a rather blah voice over – “I have a job, I have a wife, etc” – then drops it completely and continues in a more or less naturalistic mode that gives no indication of what kind of film you are watching. In a way this is quite effective; the potential directions are seemingly limitless. The performances and set up are – almost – authentically ordinary, the exceptions being Charlotte Rampling’s angular presence and the nature of just what it is that Alain does for a living. It isn’t hidden, it’s right up front in the first scene, but I’m saving it for a more impactful entrance. Bénédicte by contrast doesn’t do anything, except that is…
Bénédicte finds the lemming the next day but it is not so dead as once it seemed. She rushes it to the local vet, who takes it off her hands in exchange for a pocket analysis of the suicidal lemming misaprehension. Alain on the other hand returns to work, quick to accept the apologies of the continued embarrassed Richard, only for Alice to show up and make a breathy pass at him while he’s working late. Despite her corpse-looking expression he’s tempted, but loyalty to his wife wins through and he turns her down. She leaves with what must pass for contemptuous admiration for him, and the advice to do something about her lingering perfume. When he returns home Bénédicte can’t help but notice the scent of soap following him around, but he elects to keep his evening’s adventure a secret.
Ahh, suddenly as an audience we feel on safer ground. This is the sexual/emotional modern-film-noir corner of the market, a somehow very French theme (if by a half-German director). The symbolism of the lemming remains a little unusual, shall we say, but against this largely ordinary backdrop we can imagine an increasingly fraught triangle of some sort to quickly break out and start poking us with its corners.
Bénédicte has some drainage people over to stuff a camera up her pipe and make sure no more lemmings are hanging around, then is surpised to notice Alice hanging around at the front gate. Bénédicte invites her in, is quized about her desire to have babies, and is finally rewarded for her generosity with the revelation of why Alain is a good husband, more or less. Alice then requests a bed to lie down on for a while, and when Alain returns from work she’s still in the spare room. When the handsome couple go to investigate, Alice screams at them to leave her the fuck alone, locks the door, trashes the room and then blows her own head off.
The next day a mousy-looking rodent enthusiast turns up at the house for a look at the kitchen sink, prompting Bénédicte to mention the suicidal coincidence. He denies the myth but she is disturbed, enough so to sleep in the spare room that night, right next to Alice’s wall stain; now Alain is disturbed too. When Alain and Richard next meet at work, the boss thanks him for doing the manly thing regarding the recent tragedy. They drive together to a far away business meeting, during which journey Alain confides about Alice’s attempt to bed him and Richard can’t decide whether he is angry or not about his failure to do so. Alain rather looks like he wishes he’d kept his trap shut.
There is something of a pacing problem with Lemming. With the possible exception of Alice’s penultimate – but, frankly, rather predictable moments – there has been no cycle of up and down, fast then slow; just a steady, middle-lane cruise, not unlike the journey currently holding our attention – not gripping it, certainly, just keeping it in place like a note behind a fridge-magnet letter. There is still interest though. I want to see what happens.
At the hotel Alain calls home, but Bénédict’s behavior over the phone is very worrying and he feels he must return home. He borrows Richard’s car, interrupting a potential hooker sandwich to get the keys, then drives home. Bénédicte is asleep when he arrives but he cannot wake her. He explores the house, eventually discovering hundreds of lemmings infesting the kitchen. They chase him out into the lounge where he falls, hurts his arm, then finds Bénédicte looming over him. He blacks out and wakes up in hospital, bruised and broken and watched over by an equally looming nurse.
The transition bringing us to the hospital room is strange. You get the impression there is supposed to be a kind of Vertigo Hitchcockian, Lost Highway Lynchian air to it, yet somehow it remains just a brief montage of lemmings crawling over each other, a man banging his elbow and a woman watching from the doorway. There is an momentary ordinariness gap, yes; but what fills it lacks for something.
Bénédicte is waiting by the bedside when Alain next regains consciousness, happy to see him awake and ready to tell him about the car crash he was in on his way back to their house on that night of mystery. She recalls no strange phone conversation and assures him he never returned home to find lemmings all over the place. Then Richard appears, and Alain watches the familiar interaction between his boss and his wife with growing suspicion. Something, he feels, is far from right.
Well, come this point I am still more or less entertained with Lemming. True, I find the film’s point-of-view a little mixed; if this is Alain’s story and the idea is to join him in questioning the nature of his relationships, there have been some odd moments of focus on Bénédicte’s experience, things which are not Alain’s to know about. If there is some kind of conspiracy between her and Richard though, with Alice and Alain its victims, it has not been well established. I shall still persevere, but it is increasingly without real enthusiasm. It is very hot outside here at the moment.
After mentioning it once or twice prior to his wife’s suicide, Alain and Bénédicte take up Richard’s offer of the loan of his lake-side mountain cabin, a place where Alain can recover at his ease. It is an idyllic, restful scene, in which Bénédicte swims and asks him about Alice’s attemted seduction and presses him for the tiniest details, relentlessly. When he fails to recall exactly what was said Bénédicte goes on to repeat it all, word for word, and insist he call her Alice and kiss him passionately while he does so, and then he wakes up in the dark, naked by the lake. She is gone, and has taken the car.
I see. Although it may be I wish I didn’t. Yes, Lemming could have gone anywhere with that naturalistic style, but where it has gone has remained so flatly presented throughout that it’s hard to know why we’re bothering. Alain’s total failure to jump to – or naturalistically deny – the obvious spooky conclusion just means everything continues at the same mono-pace as before. There is more tension in my hamstring, and I’ve been avoiding the gym for years now.
Alain has to hitchhike home, where he finds the car in the garage but no sign of his wife. He lurks at home until the mousy-mouse guy shows up with the freshly caged lemming, a gift for Mr. Getty’s wife. Finally Bénédicte returns to take a shower, rather bluntly informing Alain she’s been “with” his boss before locking him out of the bathroom. Alain rushes to the office and insists on speaking to Richard, who explains to Alain the facts of life and expresses his disappointment that Alain is being so childish about it all. When the cucold gets back home he is just in time to watch Bénédicte jump in a taxi and away. And the lemming bites his finger when he tries to feed it.
Now it is time.
Alain does what anyone would do in his position: he gets the flying webcam prototype he’s been working on for Richard and uses it to spy on his wife and boss doing the nasty. Unfortunately it crashes in the bushes, as aparently he’s not that good at his job. That night Alain eats catfood straight from the tin and falls asleep watching a burly logger chopping wood with a big axe on the TV… but he wakes in the night to find Bénédicte – or is it Alice? – watching him from the shadows.
Alice gives it to him straight: she’s not going anywhere until she sees her whoring husband dead. If you want your wife back, make it look like suicide. Richard brings the broken webcam-copter to work the next day, still more disappointed with Alain’s juvenile response to his own new found happiness, not to mention his poor design work. This is, understandably, the final straw. After dark Alain drives to Richard’s house, enters with the key Alice gave him, and smothers the older man with a pillow – and in what is no-question the spookiest shot of the film, Alain realises the once sleeping Bénédicte watched him do the whole thing with one wide and staring eye.
Alain carries the body to the kitchen, rigs the coffe machine to provide a spark just after two, then turns on all the rings. Richard’s preference for natural gas cooking was conveniently set up during that disastrous act one meal. Bénédicte sleep walks to the car, and on the drive home starts to come out of it. By the time they are both in bed she is even asking how he hurt his hand and talking about the strange dream she recently had in which he made love to Alice while thinking it was her. All is well. Boom.
The end, basically. The voice over returns to let us know that their neighbour’s son smuggled the lemming back from a Scandinavian holiday and his dad flushed it down the toilet. A Swiss company bought out Richard’s business, but Alain still works there. Blah. Bénédicte finds the lemming, dead again, presumably like Alice’s post-terminal influence, then stares at the neighbour’s boy kicking a football against the wall while Alain’s voice tells us all this. “Dream a Little Dream of Me” plays while she watches him, then over the end credits.
It’s not very good, really.