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German born French filmmaker Dominik Moll likes to make us feel uneasy, and his latest film, Lemming, manages to straddle the genres of psychological thriller and supernatural drama, to keep us a little bit ‘disturbed’ as he tells Andrew L. Urban.

It’s a mild (18 C) October morning in Baden Baden, when Dominik Moll interrupts his family visit to his parents in his home town (complete with his two kids), to take a call from Sydney and talk about his last film, Lemming, on the eve of its Australian release. Moll has lived in Paris for his entire 20 year career, and regards himself as a French filmmaker, but says “I haven’t discarded my German origins.”

With a spa dating back to Roman times, a modern casino and lots of music, Baden Baden is a sophisticated German jewel between the Black Forest and the Rhine. But it’s not a filmmaking mecca like Paris. Its citizens are pretty average, and Moll – despite being drawn to extreme characters in his films - regards himself as “normal … but I’m attracted to excessive behaviour. Like most people, I don’t dare do things that might be embarrassing … so I put that in my films,” he says with a little laugh. It’s his way of vicariously living on the edge.

In his black comedy, Harry, He’s Here to Help (2000), Moll certainly projected his wildest black fantasies onto Harry (Sergi Lopez) in a gripping and dark comedy that was selected for Competition at Cannes, and was nominated for a Best Foreign Language BAFTA Award, not to mention delighting audiences the world over. Lopez co-starred with Laurent Lucas, who Moll ended up casting again in Lemming.

And Lemming revisits the darker corners of Moll’s mind, in a story about a clever engineer of gizmos at a technology company, Alain Getty (Lucas), who is transferred to a new location where he and his wife Benedicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg) invite the boss Richard Pollock (Andre Doussolier) and his strangely aloof and acerbic wife Alice (Charlotte Rampling) to dinner. The discovery of a lemming (far from its Scandinavian habitat) that’s blocked their sink adds to the disquieting time for the Gettys, which gets worse when Alice returns one afternoon, and squats in their spare bedroom. To their horror, she locks herself in and trashes the room – before a gunshot is heard. Destabilised, the couple’s seemingly perfect life has now come unstuck and when Richard makes a pass at Benedicte, Alain becomes furiously jealous. But the spectre of Alice hangs over them still and the betrayals take their toll.

"on the borderline between reality and something supernatural"

The film slides from psychological thriller to supernatural drama with such subtlety that it blurs the line. “I found it exciting to stay on the borderline between reality and something supernatural,” he says. “If we had made it completely supernatural, it would have been too reassuring for the audience. I wanted it to be more disturbing.”

It’s those decisions that have elicited such praise from his A list cast. “Dominik is a risk-taker,” says Charlotte Gainsbourg, “and the result of risk-taking is astonishing. His style is so much his own, it's definitely got balls! And everything in this unlikely story seems somehow credible. Lemming is not a horror movie, but just reading the screenplay conjured up images that transported me … and the fear just kept on rising.”

Charlotte Rampling found the film “exceptionally moving. I recognized the strange atmosphere of the screenplay, a story as pregnant with meaning as a fable, a legend, a Greek tragedy. Each character's story is governed by his or her unconscious, by what is irrational, making it neither predictable nor controllable. Dominik Moll is a true film-maker, an artist. He belongs to the tribe of those who are able to create an idiosyncratic world of their own; whose way of seeing the world is a rare gift.”

The writing of the screenplay was drawn out – Moll needs time to digest material and ideas, he says, hence his next film may well be another five years in the pipeline. “It wasn’t linear … I did it in bits and pieces. After I had finished the first draft, I worked with my co-writer Gilles Marchand. I had it well in place until Alice suicides but then I wasn’t sure where it should go. It took some time to move it beyond the psychological toward the supernatural. But that was always there from the start, with the lemming getting stuck in a sink in a Paris apartment. That announces that something irrational would come into their lives.”

The film benefits greatly from a well chosen cast of actors with enormous reputations, especially in Europe. The role of Alain is crucial: “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 André 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. André loved that. “Great,” he said, ‘At last, a part without neuroses!’ It was a delight to see the pleasure he took in playing Pollock.”

Moll 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 loved the fact that they shared the same first name"

And in Charlotte Gainsbourg, Moll discovered “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.”

While writing, says Moll, he was in control of the characters, “but of course when the actors come on, the characters change from abstract beings to being very much alive.” At least until they die ….

Published November 2, 2006

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Dominik Moll

Lemming release: Sydney - October 26, 2006.

Harry He is Here to Help

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