Lemming by Dominik Moll

Dominik Moll's “Lemming,” which premiered at the Festival de Cannes last year but only now is getting American theatrical release, tells the story of Alain Getty, a young and brilliant engineer, and his wife Benedicte, who move into a new city after Alain's work transfer. They invite Alain's new boss and his wife to dinner one evening. However the difference between the two couples couldn't be more extreme. One is young, presumably model couple; the other is a pair corroded by hate and resentment. The disastrous dinner, and the discovery of a mysterious dead rodent in their drain, mark the couple's descent into pandemonium of their once perfect life.

The idea for the story

The idea came from lemmings. I've been fascinated by lemmings since I was a child. I grew up in Germany, where, as in Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxon world, the mass migrations and supposed collective suicides of this small rodent are a well-known phenomenon. The starting point for the story was the image of a man unscrewing the joints of a blocked sink, noticing something, tugging on it and finding a lemming. Naturally the question arises: How did it get there These creatures inhabit only the northernmost parts of Scandinavia. The basic idea was to start with an ordinary event drawn from everyday life–like a blocked sink–and make this the start of a long voyage through troubled waters, including various episodes of the unreal. I also wanted to create a central character that appeared to be in total control of his professional and emotional lives, a character that thought control was an essential requirement for happiness. And I wanted to watch him gradually falling apart. Alain is a home automation engineer. His job is to ensure that everything remains constantly under control. It's no coincidence that its him who little by little looses his bearings.

Various phases of the script

Already in the first draft, both couples were present, but Benedicte and Alain ended up traveling deep into the tundra of northern Scandinavia, and then found themselves in the midst of the famous migration. The plot really didn't work and I felt a bit lost. Then my co-writer Gilles Marchand and I decided to shift the action back to France and focus on the peculiarities of the relationship between the two couples. We wanted to dig deeper into the notion of Benedicte's alienation and to show how in Alain's eyes she was becoming a different person. This allowed us to develop the theme of Alain's control slipping, and it also gave the Alice character much more strength and significance.

Getting the story right

We felt the story was right, when we devised the scene on the lake where Benedicte replays Alice seducing Alain. It's a crucial scene in which there is a strange sense of fusion between the two female characters. At this point in the story, Alain no longer quite knows who he is with, which is both an exciting and an unsettling experience.

Discovering the disturbing lemmus

The lemming is the spanner in the works, an omen of the strange things that are about to start happening. But the strange things in question are not quite what we expect. The question of the lemming finds a quite simple explanation at the end of the film. It's really a red herring, but it's important all the same, because it paves the way for the eruption of the irrational in a seemingly more ordinary domain, the life of a couple.

Creating a feeling of permanent tension

The story switches constantly from Alain to Benedicte's point of view, and the audience becomes unsettled. Like the characters themselves, one ends up feeling almost dizzy. I remember specifically the pleasure I felt when first watching Fellini's Satyricon at age 12. I understood nothing, but, at the same time, I was fascinated. It was like a long dream. The movie stuck in my mind for many years afterwards because it worked in a way that was different. What I want is for the audience to keep questioning itself what its experiencing. I want to open doors, and then close some in order to be able to open new ones. To enjoy the film it is important to accept to loose ones bearings, to accept that a film can be a labyrinth. It's like when you first set foot in a foreign city. You want to get lost, rather than follow the guidebook. I want my plots to sit on a knife-edge, trapped between worlds, the real world and the world of dreams, without the distinction becoming too apparent. Its like a twilight world in which certain visible signs of reality exist, but where we loose the notions of who we are and exactly where we find ourselves.

Lemming as a dark and serious film

There is something delightful about the accumulated knocks Alain receives. He breaks his arm, is trampled by a horde of lemmings, forgets who his wife is, is humiliated by his boss, gets his hand bitten, his skull beaten in and even his flying web-cam starts malfunctioning. For someone who is into total control, that's a lot of mishap. There's a good screenwriting principle, which I had fun applying to Alain: when your characters down, kick him.

Alain and Benedicte as a modern couple

They are a perfect couple with their perfectly modern bungalow that is perfectly equipped. They are on the same wavelength, emotionally speaking. They work well together sexually speaking. They both want children. But there's no such thing as a quiet life. You need to keep on your toes. You can't take anything for granted. How can you really know the person you are living with How can you really know what is going on inside the other person's head You think you know each other and then when things start getting rocky, you aren't so sure anymore. It's like when Alice tells Benedicte: Don't you ever think about the day when things will start to go wrong That's a question we should all be asking ourselves, but we avoid doing so because we want everything to be perfect. Alain is very busy with his work. Hes started to take everything for granted. He thinks it's all in the bag. And that is probably why his world caves in. Benedicte is much more receptive to those questions. So it seemed more logical that things should start with her.

Relationship between the two females

We spent a great deal of time wondering whether the change in Benedicte should be related to the fact that she was over-identifying with Alice, perhaps even to a pathological extent, or whether Alice was actually possessing Benedicte. We asked ourselves whether we should adopt an essentially psychological approach, or whether we should go for something closer to the super-natural. The latter solution seemed more cinematic and more rewarding.

The movie as a ghost story

The movie is about hidden fears and desires, but it's not a ghost story. The supernatural is not a goal in itself, but it does provide narrative structure. Possession takes place in stages. The violence in Alice and in her marriage, followed by her suicide, upset Benedicte and this makes her vulnerable, good territory for Alice to invade. In the night scene, when Benedicte goes up to the guest room, it may be that Alice is swallowed up in Benedicte. Then there is a transitional period in which it seems as though Alice lies dormant inside Benedicte, occasionally erupting in such a way as to cause behavioral malfunctions, until such time as she escapes Alain entirely by sleeping with Pollock. In the end, we see Alice physically take Benedictes place, inciting Alain to kill Pollock. This is one possible way to see the story, but I didn't want it to suppress other interpretations.

Is it all in Alain's mind

The idea that Alice possesses Benedicte in order to convince Alain to kill Pollock enabled us to really show Alain's fear that his wife is becoming a different person and also his desire for this. Benedicte's change of personality could easily prove to be a fantasy of Alain's. This would relate to his fear that his relationship might go the way of Pollock's. The fact of combining the two women is also a way for him to have them both, a way for him to acknowledge his desire for Alice without having to feel guilty about it.

Dangerous dreams and fantasies

You could say that the Pollock couple–and Alice in particular–generate Alains fantasies. This danger is even stronger than a real threat (such as an invasion of lemmings for instance). Alain, who tries to control everything, may have an unconscious desire that things should escape his control, to perk up his life. The fact that Alice surrenders herself to him (“You can do what you want with me”) is unsettling because it's precisely the opposite way in which he functions. He turns down the offer, but it's too late: fantasy is at work. The truth is that he wouldn't object if Benedicte had a bit more Alice in her. But when that happens, he takes fright because he no longer recognizes her.

Alice as a mysterious character

Without Alice, there would be no story. She is the lemming. She is the one that triggers the whole business. She tries to seduce Alain, then sows the seeds of doubt in Benedicte's mind about her husband's faithfulness. She is not a scheming person. There is no premeditated intention of evil. She improvises as she goes. Alice is unhappy: the sight of this perfect couple emphasizes the extent of her own failure. She wants to harm them and at the same time, she envies them. The reason she approaches Benedicte is partly at least that she is lonely and lost and needy. When she goes to the lab and tries to seduce Alain, she's not a dominating woman attempting to take control of a nice young man. She is taking a risk. She genuinely yearns for Alain. There is something desperate and highly vulnerable about her.

Alain's loss of control

The more the story progresses, the more he starts to flounder. He thinks he's a decent guy. He has not given in to temptation. He tells himself, I pulled myself together. I shouldn't cheat on my wife. But when Pollock lays into him for not sleeping with Alice, poor Alain is all at sea. Pollock is calling his value system into question. So Alain now realizes that there are no absolute certainties. And he starts to feel guilty because maybe he could have helped save this woman from suicide.

Pollock's character

I thought it would be fun to give him a double life. He is a respectable businessman and a man who goes with whores as Alice says. He has developed his own set of values, which enables him to enjoy the services of call-girls right under his wife's nose, and then fly into a rage because an underling has not wanted to sleep with her. I particularly like the moment when he gets angry, because it does show that although the marriage seems to have reached the end of the line, and seems to rest on nothing but mutual contempt, the truth is that things are not quite so simple. The first time I met Andr Dussolier, I told him that Pollock has reached a point in life where he has decided to do away with guilt. The thing that matters is that we need to know this couple has been passionate in the past and that the passion was a truly violent one, a mutually destructive force. Destructive passion may of course prove enviable to Alain, who is enjoying a stable but dull relationship. Destructiveness can be highly attractive.

The film's rigorous form

Because the films content is set in the world of the imagination, in the unconscious, the films form had to be very clear, very organized. It's a little like in De Chirico's paintings, which enhance the strange atmosphere of a dream through their extreme precision. I was lucky enough to be able to shoot part of the film in studio, which allows for this degree of control and precision.

Contrast of interiors and exteriors

I wanted the daylight of the exteriors to be very sharp, again a reference to De Chirico, with a strong sense of geometry, like the white walls of Alain and Benedicte's suburban house. We shot much of the movie in the South of France in order to ensure that the house and garden were steeped in light. The weather didn't always do what it was supposed to, but even that introduced an unexpected element–windthat's quite prominent. The wind brings a touch of the irrational to the couple's quiet, residential neighborhood. It's another example of how it's healthy not to try and control everything!

Attention to sound

I love sound. It brings a great deal to the atmosphere of a film. With Grard Hardy, the sound editor, we tried to design sound with a great deal of precision and the result is a soundtrack stripped down to the essential, something quite bare. It's a delicate business because the less you put on a soundtrack, the more each sound stands out, like the sound of the coffee machine when Alice and Benedicte are having their conversation in the living-room. The fact that the soundtrack was so spare lends a nightmarish emphasis to the few scenes that are sonically dense, like the moment the lemmings are discovered in the kitchen, with its thousands of little shrieks.

David Whitaker's Score

I asked David to write something tenuous and suspended, almost free of melody, to emphasize the sense of uncertainty that floats over the film. His orchestration is magnificent and brings a very specific flavor to the film.

Music

“The Blue Danube” is the first thing that came to mind when I started wondering what Alain might whistle under the shower. So it seemed natural to reuse it when the couple is on its way into the mountains, when everything seems to be falling back into place. A reminder of the idyllic era that starts the story. I have to admit that I was a little worried about the Kubrick connection, but it worked so well that I thought, “Stuff it!” I listened to Ligeti's Continuum, which is what we hear during the murder scene, a great deal as I was writing the screenplay. Once again, this is the control theme. Continuum is a frenetic, repetitive piece for two player pianos that seem wildly out of control, although they are controlled by computer. It's an entirely mechanical composition, the most controlled thing one can imagine. I liked how that contrast, between apparent frenzy and actual control, relates to the main theme of the film.

Narrative resonance

Some scenes echo others. At the start of the film, Alain watches a child slapped by its father and later on he will be humiliated himself. The process of writing is about devising a structural coherence to the world the film describes. Which is why certain correspondences arise, why certain moments come to echo others. As you say, when Pollock brings back the broken camera and says, I didn't think you were so infantile, it is as if Alain was being slapped himself. He is like a child, playing with flying cameras and stuff, which has had the gumption to enter the world of grown-ups–but the world of grown-ups is too complicated for him. In the same way, Alain has seen the neighbors' son humiliated by his father. Then later, that same child is going to watch Benedicte humiliating Alain. There are also more playful recurrences. For instance, the fact that Pollock refers to gas cookers during the dinner, while at the end Alain uses gas to blow up Pollock's house.

Casting

Initially, I didn't want to cast Laurent Lucas as Alain because he'd already played in Harry and I felt, slightly inanely, that one should change cast with each new film. But gradually, Laurent began to take shape in my mind. There is a certain strength to him, a quiet strength. However hard the knocks, he never falls into being a victim. He plays the straight man perfectly, someone too on the level to quite realize what is happening to him. I have always wanted to work with Andr Dussollier, since Alain Resnais' Melo and he was my first choice for Pollock. I remember explaining that his character was that of someone who had got rid of any kind of complex. Andr loved that. Great, he said, At last a part without neuroses.” It was a delight to see the pleasure he took in playing Pollock.

I knew that Charlotte Rampling would bring huge scope to the combination of attractiveness, unsettling strangeness, and distress that make up the part of Alice, a woman deep in personal crisis. She took the part head on, playing her as a hugely attractive and breathtakingly vulnerable person. Charlotte loved concealing her legendary gaze behind dark glasses during the dinner scene. We also changed her hairstyle, to emphasize the frailness of the part and to bring her appearance closer to the one of Benedicte.

I discovered in Charlotte Gainsbourg a combination of delicacy and strength which suited the part of Benedicte perfectly. The part is a difficult one because it's constantly on a knife-edge. We were always having to ask ourselves to what extent she was being herself, and to what extend she was possessed by Alice. Charlotte managed to provide an extremely sober combination of the equivocal and the unsettling. There is a certain kinship between the Charlottes: Their English origins, their slender figure, their restrained and subtle acting styles, which perfectly corroborates the notion that they are playing two women who merge into one and the same. And naturally, I loved the fact that they shared the same first name.

Dominik Moll is a graduate of the City University of New York and French film school, IDHEC. He has directed six short films, including The Gynaecologist and his Secretary and, subsequently, three features: “Intimacy” (1994), With a Friend Like Harry (aka Harry, He's Here to Help), which premiered in competition in Cannes in 2000, and Lemming.