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A region 2 DVD review of LEMMING by Slarek

Metaphors. Don't you just love 'em? Those moments in films that play one way on the surface but are suggestive of so much more, like that trip beneath the lawn into the dark, disturbing world of insects that kicked off Blue Velvet, that deadly spike in Marylin Chambers' armpit in Rabid, and any number of elements in the cinema of Tsukamoto Shinya. But if you are going to pull this off, it's best not to make your metaphors too obvious or too literal, and whatever you do, don't have a character stand there and explain it for us.

Lemming is certainly the sort of non-specific title that gets my attention. Given that it's not a nature film, a Disney animation or aimed in any way at kids, we can anticipate that there will be a degree of metaphor from the start, and when nice, middle-class engineer Alain decides to sort out an blocked sink and finds a lemming jammed in the pipe, we get it. Lemmings, as most will know, are primarily famous for leaping off cliffs in a sort of inexplicable mass suicide, something we now know to be bunkum, which is very clearly explained here to Alain's wife Bénédicte by an expert in these matters. The Lemming is obviously dead. But wait, it's still breathing after all, and with a bit of specialist attention is able to recover. A short while later a character who feels trapped and constricted by their life (like a lemming squashed in a waste pipe, perhaps?) commits suicide (as lemmings are fabled to do), but their spirit appears to live on in another (revived from the dead, just like that lemming). Ah, I get it.

Lemming is a curious but intriguing creation, part thriller, part social drama, and part ghost story, at least if you choose to read it that way. After establishing lead character Alain as an inventor of improbable objects – a mobile webcam that flies around the house like a remote control helicopter, which is primarily introduced so that he can use it later to spy on his boss Richard – the real plot kicks off when Richard invites himself and his wife Alice round to dinner. They arrive late and the dinner does not go well, as Alice is openly rude to her hosts and bitterly reveals details of her husband's whoremongering. A few evenings later she goes looking for her husband at work and instead finds Alain working late and very directly attempts to seduce him. Tempted though he may be, he turns her down. A couple of days later she drops in on Bénédicte, asks her to lie down for a while, and...

Just how much of the plot to reveal is a tricky call here, as surprising narrative turns are certainly one of the film's strong points, if only because you'd have to be a surrealist on mescaline to see a couple of them coming. Not quite as successful is the cross-genre wandering, which comes across less as a deliberate attempt to wrong-foot the audience than an uncertainty about just what the film really wants to be, which can prove occasionally frustrating and leave it feeling a little unfocussed.

But despite this, Lemming remains oddly involving, thanks in part to the unhurried pacing, the vivid sense of place and the sometimes dream-like manner in which the plot unfolds. But what ultimately sells it are a quartet of finely judged performances, the best of which comes from Charlotte Rampling, whose icy hostility and predatory sexuality as Alice is almost worth the ticket price alone.

Lemming certainly wanders into interesting territory. The relationship between Richard and Alice, one devoid of love, trust and positive physical contact, is the flipside of the contented stability that exists between Alain and Bénédicte. Exposure to them proves infectiously destructive, launching Alain on a downward spiral (amusingly represented by his increasingly visible signs of injury) that leads only to chaos. But too often the film flirts with ideas and plot twists that I couldn't help wishing it would grab with both hands, resulting in a work that is pleasingly odd, but perhaps not quite odd enough, if you get my drift. Lacking the clarity of vision and emotional terror of David Lynch or Michael Haneke, whose work the film has been sometimes compared to, and even the grind-in-the-seat discomfort of director Dominik Moll's previous Harry, He's Here to Help, it's still very much worth a look, though more for its feel and its characters than its not fully realised plot.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a very nice transfer all round, with colour, contrast and detail all of a very high order. Black levels are bang-on and shadow detail very good. Daylight exteriors look particularly impressive.

The 5.1 soundtrack is a subtle but crystal clear and very effective mix, really adding to the atmosphere of individual scenes, whether it be wind in trees, heavy rainfall or, best of all, the strange noises emanating from the kitchen one night, a sequence that as a result is genuinely suspenseful.

extra features

In the Interview with Dominik Moll (25:51), the director talks about how the narrative of the film took shape, the casting, the characters, the purpose of specific scene, the importance of good sound design, working with dead lemmings, and his pleasure on hearing that the film is being discussed, even by those who did not like it. The interview is in English, in which Dominik is fluent, and either conducted at the Artificial Eye offices or set dressed by them – there are an awful lot of their DVDs in the bookcase behind the director.

There are 6 featurettes, comprised largely of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage: Knocks (2:57) looks at the character of Alain; A Picture (2:30) examines the process of preparing a still photograph used as a prop in the film; On the Rock (6:06) details the blocking of a key scene by a lake; Substitution (4:16) covers a scene that occurs later in the film that is best not revealed here; Little Beasts (10:09) is all about the lemmings, real and CGI (this is really interesting); and Dominik with a k focuses on the director and his working methods.

There are trailers for both Lemming (1:52) and Harry He's Here to Help (1:48). The Lemming trailer reveals a little more than ideal if you've not yet seen the film.

Finally we have filmographies for Laurent Lucas, Charlotte Gainsbough, Dominik Moll, Andre Dussollier and Charlotte Rampling.


Lemming is a film I enjoyed but was never particularly wowed by, a cross-genre tale told with commendable subtlety, but without that certain something needed to really get under your skin. Damned fine performances all round, though.

The film looks very good on Artificial Eye's DVD, with first-rate picture and sound and some interesting extra features. If you have a taste for the unusual, but don't like your thrillers too dark or your twists too strange, then this may be up your street.


France 2005
124 mins
Dominik Moll
Laurent Lucas
Charlotte Gainsbourg
Charlotte Rampling
Andre Dussollier

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby surround 5.1
Interview with Dominik Moll
Making-of featurettes

Artificial Eye
release date
11 September 2006
review posted
12 September 2006

related review
The Monk film review and Interview with director Dominik Mol

See all of Slarek's reviews