Exhilaratingly anxious, Dominik Moll’s new film Lemming charts familiar territory but does it with gravity and panache. Truly, the Idealized Upper-Middle-Class Family Under Metaphoric Siege Movie is such a perennial that one could be forgiven for a certain degree of genre fatigue—last year, Michael Haneke’s Caché may have elevated the dynamic onto a new plane of philosophical angst. Moll himself debuted with a creepily enthralling entry, 2000’s With a Friend Like Harry, but Lemming is better, largely thanks to its inventive iconography and spooky rhythms—it’s a patient, savory psychodrama, and a triumph of unsettled reaction shots.
We first see techno-inventor Alain (Laurent Lucas) demonstrating his array of robotic home-maintenance devices for his new Bel Air employers. At home, he and his childless gamine of a wife, Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are still moving in; impactions and disturbances, including a neighbor slapping his kid in the street and a stubborn kitchen sink clog, lurk at the edges. When the boss (André Dussollier) comes over for dinner with his steely, beshaded wife (Charlotte Rampling), we’re braced as the young couple isn’t for an air burst of uneasiness. It comes: Rampling’s unstable shrike lashes out at her perhaps unfaithful husband, and Alain and Bénédicte get a taste of the menopausal disaster that could lie in their future.
But we’re not yet a quarter of the way into Moll’s saga, which is when Alain opens the drainpipe and pulls out a near dead lemming, and Rampling tries to seduce Alain at the lab, telling him that her husband had tried to kill her years before (“I had it coming,” she shrugs). The infestations escalate: Soon, and suddenly, the boss’s wife installs herself in the youngsters’ spare room and shoots herself in the head. From there, Alain and Bénédicte’s life enters a no-man’s-land of could-be hauntings, lost consciousness, and betrayal. Only the portentous music is in any way Hitchcockian; Moll’s mystery achievement instead heads subtly into Lynch country, especially when Bénédicte watches with us a video feed from a motorized sewer camera, trucking into the secret darkness under every street.
Gainsbourg is beguilingly unpretty, and Rampling is so convincing in her confrontational misery that you suspect she’s simply recalling her own decades of depression. But Lemming might’ve been merely an exercise if it weren’t for Lucas, whose chiseled Daniel Day-Lewis–ness is a high-contrast foil to the actor’s phenomenal ability to radiate horror without moving a muscle. In the end, Moll’s film may be too neat (and too lengthy), but the wallop of disquiet is delicious.