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Chaos theory

A model couple, Alain and Bénédicte, live a perfect life in a clean white suburban house.

19 May 2006

9:28 AM

19 May 2006

9:28 AM

A model couple, Alain and Bénédicte, live a perfect life in a clean white suburban house.

A model couple, Alain (Laurent Lucas) and Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg), live a perfect life in a clean white suburban house. Alain is an engineer who is developing a way of protecting the home by remote control, using a minute helicopter which carries a camera and can download its images on to a laptop. Even from afar, Alain tells his audience during a presentation, you can limit damage to your home. Alain and Bénédicte invite Alain’s boss Richard Pollock (André Dussollier) and his wife Alice (Charlotte Rampling) to dinner, and as Bénédicte washes the salad she notices the kitchen sink is blocked. After the dinner party ends in spilt wine and accusations between the Pollocks, Alain unscrews the drain and finds a lemming half-drowned in the pipe. He thinks, mistakenly, that he has solved the problem (‘I unblocked the sink,’ he tells Benedicte proudly as he kisses her in bed). But the lemming signifies the arrival of chaos: soon Alain’s ordered home is ransacked; his ordered mind is confounded.

To be at all a success, the film requires the audience to be in patient and sympathetic mood. It would be easy — and not an outrageous slander — to call Lemming pretentious, slow, baffling or even ridiculous. But its qualities are the same as its flaws — what intrigues at the start begins to grate towards the finish. It is undoubtedly too slow, but interesting nonetheless. Like Mulholland Drive or Vertigo, it has a dreamlike (or nightmarish) atmosphere and an irrational narrative (every prediction I made was wrong) which could either mystify or madden its audience.


Of course, the overall intention is well signalled. Such a controlled environment as Alain’s is just begging to be dishevelled, and there is nothing new about a film which peers between suburban shutters. The famous opening of Blue Velvet, in which a man waters his perfect picket-fenced green lawn, is evoked at the end of Lemming when Alain hoses his garden with a studied formality. As well as Lynch, Lemming brings to mind Hitchcock: a normal life turned upside-down is what gave us North by Northwest, and Alain (like Cary Grant) becomes bedraggled, bloodied and terrified in stages. Roger Thornhill (Grant) learns ‘the art of survival’, and so must Alain Getty. The clean lines of Hitchcock’s thriller are also recalled by Richard Pollock’s poised home and well-furnished office — not unlike Mr Vandamm’s (James Mason’s) retreat in North by Northwest. Lemming’s palette of subdued blues and greys is like a Hitchcock film, and of course the infestation recalls The Birds.

All this is very pleasant, but it by no means turns the film into a masterpiece. Events merely proceed; they do not create sufficient tension, despite all the creeping about in dark rooms, and without suspense the film is a bit lost. The mystery of the lemming’s appearance has an explanation, we feel sure, and Alain and Bénédicte never seem to be in the danger of, for example, Colin and Mary in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, in which an older couple similarly invade the marriage of a younger pair. It is ultimately a dissatisfying, notional plot and an underwhelming whole.

For those who prefer the clatter of the mutiplex there is 16 Blocks, in which New York detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is given the task of escorting petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) a mere 16 blocks from copshop to courthouse — Bunker is due to appear as a witness before a grand jury. It’s a journey that should take 15 minutes, but, unfortunately for Mosley (who wants nothing more than to soak himself in scotch), a team of baddies want to stop Eddie Bunker from singing like the proverbial canary.

Since Eddie Bunker doesn’t shut up for more than two minutes together during the whole picture, I began to see their point. It’s a bore that he’s so tiresome since, in a decidedly mediocre film, I did enjoy Bruce Willis’s turn as the podgy downbeat. Willis was irritating in his prime, but since Tarantino revived his career (with Pulp Fiction) he’s been much more watchable (The Sixth Sense, Sin City). In this, I liked him from the opening: he is asked by his superiors to keep an eye on a crime scene and not to touch anything. Ignoring the bullet-studded bodies which litter the apartment, Mosley searches the kitchen cupboards for booze, pours himself a drink, checks the air-conditioning unit is working and then settles down on the sofa to read a discarded newspaper. Quite amusing. But sadly the rest of the film feels far too familiar — it would have been a lot more interesting if a young black rookie cop (Mos Def) had been assigned to escort an elderly petty criminal (Bruce Willis) the 16 blocks. But nobody thought of that.


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