Perfection of the Moment

This Hitchcockian French movie is a flawless execution of the art of film

If you're like me, right about now, you're wondering if the French can show artistry, precision and skill at anything without eventually screwing it up by headbutting someone in the chest.

Well, rest assured, they can. Lemming, the new film from director Dominik Moll, is the film that Hitchcock would have made had he lived until 2005 and been French and probably a little thinner.

In fact, Lemming is more skillfully executed, and more surprisingly and rewardingly plotted, than many of Hitchcock's films, and not just because it stars the two Charlottes of Suspense, Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of Serge) and Charlotte Rampling (she was in Zardoz, the bestest film about Sean Connery's nipples ever).

No, it's great because ... well, I always want to wholeheartedly endorse a film, but the vast majority of the time, even when I like a film, I only like parts of it, and so I can only give a reserved endorsement. Lemming, however, has virtually no flaws. It doesn't aim to be the greatest film ever made, but it does succeed at doing what it does perfectly.

It does this in part by staking out its own ground. While Lemming could be described as a mystery or a neo-noir, it's really neither of those, though it certainly references the best of those forms. Instead, it starts off seeming to be nothing more than a suburban drama, with young engineer Alain Getty (Laurent Lucas) and his weird-looking but beautiful wife, Bénédicte (Gainsbourg, who's one of the strangest-looking beautiful people in the world, which makes sense, since her father was Serge Gainsbourg, and her mother was Jane Birkin, and if you don't know who they are, then, hey, say hi to everyone at the Nerds Who Live Under Rocks meeting for me), preparing for dinner with Alain's boss.

But then, tragedy strikes: The sink is clogged. Oh no! Whatever will Alain and Bénédicte do? If your answer involves a lemming, a car crash, a lot more lemmings, some sexual malfeasance and a little, tiny helicopter with a camera attached, then you're on the right track.

I'd explain, but the plot of Lemming is so intricately constructed, and so unsuspected in its unfolding, that to describe it even a little is to give away some of the pleasures of the film.

Every 20 minutes, an odd, unexpected, but completely fitting plot twist occurs that sends Lemming not only in a new direction, but frequently into a new genre. It does this, though, without interrupting the cohesiveness of the film. In its steady and forceful rhythm, the plot is as textural and artistic as the cinematography and the music. All of these work together to produce a mood of both deep suspense and surreal detachment.

The cinematography is composed of stark shots, some swiped directly from Hitchcock, others smartly inventive. The sets are sterile and white, which allows for the figures to pop out, making even minor actions seem more meaningful. One of the best bits involves a conversation through a half-opened door, where something, perhaps something illicit, can vaguely be seen going on in the background. It's not only a clue, and a rich one, but it's shot with a beauty that only motion pictures are capable of: The image is evocative because it passes so quickly.

The music works similarly: Most of the film has no soundtrack, which is a wise decision that a lot of American filmmakers are too precious too make. But when the music does come in, as it does increasingly throughout the film, it's not the kind of music that's designed to sell soundtrack CDs to alt-indie hipsters and their neo-folk girlfriends. Instead, it's the kind of music that only works with a movie. It's highly reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's work, especially his soundtrack for Psycho. Mixing violins and spare pianos, mostly with no percussion, it's much creepier, more evocative and less obvious than the post-rock soundtracks that are now de rigueur in American movies.

In short, this is the kind of film that, at every moment, attempts nothing but the perfection of that moment. Its ending is perhaps not able to live up to the precision of what comes before, but it's by no means weak, just not as immensely strong as the rest of the film.

There was an awful period of mediocrity in French filmmaking in the '80s, followed by a series of engaging but morally repugnant films that substituted shock and awe for a much-needed long-term filmmaking policy.

Of late, there's been a turn in French cinema toward film as art. It's kind of a looking back to the past masters, and it's been evinced in films like Red Lights, Sur Mes Levres, Kings and Queen and now, in its most evolved form, Lemming. There may be no deep social significance to Lemming, nor does it aim to be a meta-comment on the art of filmmaking. Instead, it's simply a perfect execution of that art, which is really what movie-making, at its heart, should be about.

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