Sight and Sound (May/2006) - Under The Influence
(c) Sight and Sound (May/2006)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Bel Air, Los Angeles, California, Cahiers du Cinéma, Cary Grant, Claude Chabrol, Dial M for Murder (1954), Dominik Möll, François Truffaut, Frenzy (1972), Grace Kelly, James Bell, James M. Vest, James Stewart, Kim Novak, North by Northwest (1959), Patricia Highsmith, Rear Window (1954), San Francisco, California, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), The Birds (1963), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), Éric Rohmer
Dominik Moll openly avows Hitchcock as an influence on his film Lemming. But what is the meaning of this affinity between the French and the lugubrious suspense master, asks Robin Buss Plus Moll talks to James Bell.
Dominik Moll's Lemming is a slick example of those movies in which the cosy lives of a young middle class couple are disrupted by violence. Alain (Laurent Lucas) and Bénédicte (Charlotte Gainsbourg) have just moved into a box-like house in a soulless French suburb called Bel-Air. He is a designer, currently working on a remote-controlled robot that will warn homeowners of accidents such as a leaking pipe via their mobile phones, then take appropriate action. Meanwhile at home Bénédicte is preparing dinner for Alain's boss (André Dussolier) and his wife Alice (Charlotte Rampling) when she finds their plumbing blocked by what turns out to be a lemming. The dinner is a disaster: Alice starts abusing her husband and her hosts. Later she will try to seduce Alain, then commit suicide. Meanwhile the lemmings appear to be taking over the house.
It is at this point, if they have not already done so, that critics will reach for comparisons with Alfred Hitchcock and The Birds. There is a difference: in The Birds we never have any doubt that the creatures are real, and only secondarily a metaphor, whereas the lemmings in Moll's film (apart from the first) may be a figment of Alain's imagination. But this is not the only Hitchcockian element: when Bénédicte starts to take on the identity of the dead Alice, we start to think of Vertigo. And if you think you have found an analogy with Hitchcock in any French thriller, it's pretty sure to be there.
Because the French love Hitchcock, right? Any French film that involves suspense, calculated murder, guilt and transfer of guilt, an honest man unjustly accused or the disruption of comfortable middle-class lives is said to show the influence of the master. Every film Claude Chabrol has made, with the possible exception of Madame Bovary, has been called Hitchcockian. There are references to Vertigo in Gilles Mimouni's L'Appartement, while in Roman Polanski's Frantic Harrison Ford has a part, as the professor whose wife goes missing in Paris, that is clearly modelled on the roles played by James Stewart and Cary Grant in The Man Who Knew Too Much or North by Northwest. Further back, the Hitchcock touch is found everywhere in the work of his greatest acknowledged admirer François Truffaut - and not only in the obvious places: James M. Vest, an expert in Franco-Hitchcockian studies, wrote an article for the 1997-98 Hitchcock Annual in which he detected "echoes of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, The Birds and Frenzy in François Truffaut's Story of Adèle H.". To the innocent spectator the analogies may not be immediately obvious: Truffaut's film is a story of unrequited love based on the life of Adèle, daughter of the poet Victor Hugo. Vest's analysis starts, naturally, with the title - Adèle H./Alfred H. - and carries on from there.
There can be no dispute about the admiration Truffaut and the group around Cahiers du cinéma felt for Hitchcock's films. Chabrol and Eric Rohmer's book on Hitchcock appeared in 1957 and during the 1960s Truffaut would spend over 50 hours talking to the man whom he called "the greatest technician in the world" and "the ultimate athlete of cinema". It seems that Truffaut found a father-figure in Hitchcock, as he did in Jean Renoir. Transcribing the tape-recordings of these interviews occupied him for several years and produced a lavishly illustrated study of the mechanics of Hitchcock's films.
Hitchcock's self-conscious approach to the craft of film-making, meticulously preparing every scene before shooting and calculating its effects on the audience, is one of the reasons why these young French directors admired him. He was the prime example of a film-maker who was a conscious artist and his work became Exhibit Number One in the auteur gallery. Rear Window, released in France in 1955, particularly delighted the 'hitchcocko-hawkian' young guard. Here was a film, ostensibly about a photographer with a broken leg, which could clearly be read as an allegory for film-making itself: the far side of the courtyard that constitutes James Stewart's outlook on the world is a screen on which the hero projects his fantasies, constructing the story for us. The hero and subject of Rear Window is, clearly, the film director as auteur.
The importance attached to his work in France pleased Hitchcock, though he may have been unaware of the extent to which he was being used as a weapon in an intellectual debate that was as much about politics as aesthetics. The Young Turks of Cahiers, products of the French educational system, saw their attack on the dull old cinéma de papa as a repeat of the 1820s struggles in the theatre between romantics and classicists, when Stendhal championed Shakespeare against Racine. Hitchcock, the modern Shakespeare, was slightly taken aback when Chabrol, meeting him for the first time at a press conference in 1954, asked whether he believed in the Devil and whether his work represented a search for God. Hitchcock was happy to discuss structure and technique, but less eager to explore the effects of his Catholic upbringing or the nature of the obsessions revealed by his films.
When these same young critics began, during the 1960s, to make films of their own it was inevitable that these should exemplify what they had learned from the Hollywood directors they admired, and especially from Hitchcock. His influence can be detected in both their technique and their themes. In some cases, such as Chabrol's Les Cousins and Le Boucher (which could well have been retitled Shadow of a Doubt), Hitchcockian motifs are immediately evident. Elsewhere the references are more oblique or take the form of a brief homage to a particular scene that the hitchcocko-hawkians knew more or less by heart. In Chris Marker's 1962 'film-novel' La Jetée a man and a woman look at a section from the trunk of a giant sequoia tree at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, just as James Stewart and Kim Novak had looked at a similar piece of sequoia in the woods near San Francisco in Hitchcock's Vertigo; the significance of the tree is that its rings are marked with dates from world history. Twenty years later in Sans Soleil Marker has a character visiting the sites where Vertigo was made, looking at the original sequoia and, without immodestly mentioning his own film by name, referring to the scene from La Jetée. As well as the direct references to the Hitchcock film, this technique of mise en abyme, of self-reflecting mirrors, is itself suggestive of the interlocking stories in Vertigo.
The admiration has not, however, been universal, even in France. A year after the founding of Cahiers du cinéma in 1951 an 'anti-Cahiers' appeared in the form of Positif, launched from a platform that included firm opposition to auteur theory. In September 1954 its editorial board signed an article entitled "A few over-admired directors", naming Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks and other darlings of the Cahiers team. The name of Hitchcock appeared only once; otherwise, as elsewhere in early Positif, the arch-villain was condemned by being ignored.
Hostility to Hitchcock derived from the very things the hitchcocko-hawkians admired in his work: its technical virtuosity, the implication that the meaning of a film lies in its mise en scène and the metaphysical dimension that Chabrol, Rohmer and others were exploring in their own films. These were the years of the early Cold War and of political engagement; and not everyone was prepared to accept the idea that the American movies of a Catholic director could represent the highest achievement of cinema. Positif accused the critics of Cahiers of being hung up on formalism, and when the journal did finally deign to consider Hitchcock's work, in a review of Dial M for Murder and Rear Window (November 1955), Louis Séguin accused the director of "jesuitism". He set out to expose "the myth of the perfect technician" and through Hitchcock to attack the critics responsible for constructing the idea of "Alfred the metaphysician".
Positif 's most entertaining contribution to the debate appeared a year later (November 1956): a spoof 'review' by the left-wing critic Paul-Louis Thirard of To Catch a Prince, an alleged film directed by Hitchcock depicting the marriage of Grace Kelly, star of To Catch a Thief, to Prince Rainier of Monaco. The final scene, Thirard tells us, shows the film itself being transported to the studio in a helicopter: this film-in-the-film causes "a kind of Vertigo" in the audience, suggesting comparisons between the work of "our greatest metaphysician of the screen" and the stories of Jorge Luis Borges.
To some extent Positif was right: Hitchcock served, as Ado Kyrou wrote, as a canvas on which the critics of Cahiers could embroider their theories.
Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer and the rest invented Hitchcock as much as they interpreted him. From the start, this accomplished commercial director was taken as a representative figure in a local intellectual dispute, and the real content of his work was sometimes obscured rather than elucidated. His huge influence on French cinema has consequently been as much the influence of this idea of Hitchcock as of the director himself. Perhaps it is time to play down his role. So, why not forget Hitchcock as you watch Lemming? You will understand more about Dominik Moll's film, I suggest, if you ignore the parallels with the work of the master of suspense and deliberately refrain, for instance, from comparing those lemmings to Hitchcock's birds. And, as it happens, Moll's last film Harry, He's Here to Help (2000) was quite plausibly seen as inspired by Strangers on a Train. There the Hitchcock link was, if anything, stronger. Perhaps the master's influence is something French directors can grow out of.
Interview: Dominik Moll talks to James Bell
James Bell: Did you revisit Hitchcock as you were making 'Lemming'?
Dominik Moll: What I like about Hitchcock is that he's a film-maker of the subconscious: his characters' motivations are rarely obvious. Patricia Highsmith was also important for me - her novels tend to start with a very ordinary situation and then she takes us somewhere strange.
The film recalls Highsmith's 'The Talented Mr Ripley' in the way an apparently secure relationship between two successful young people is cracked open by the appearance of an outsider.
It's useful to have an outside element to disrupt things and it's a theme that recurs in my films. It was the same in Harry, He's Here to Help, and even in my first film Intimacy I included a character who intrudes into a couple's life.
I also like telling stories with a limited number of characters; I find the claustrophobic nature of such relationships is a good way to foster conflict. Look at Polanski's Knife in the Water, where only three characters create such tense drama.
'Lemming' also recalls Polanski's 'The Tenant' in its notion of someone rational seemingly becoming possessed by the spirit of a dead person. And Chabrol has been suggested as an influence.
The Tenant was certainly an influence - I'm a great admirer of Polanski's early films - but there's no strangeness in Chabrol, just a critique of bourgeois behaviour. His films are very naturalistic and never lead me to discover other worlds. I'm not a great fan.
There's an ambiguity in 'Lemming' as events become increasingly strange. For instance, is Bénédicte possessed by Alice in the supernatural sense or merely traumatised by her suicide?
When I was working on the screenplay I did wonder if, after Alice's suicide, we should tell the story from a more psychological point of view - as if Bénédicte were in shock - or if we should orient the film towards the supernatural. In the end I was more interested in the latter and so the narrative was set up as a ghost story with a dead woman's spirit taking over a living woman's body. But I wanted to reveal it gradually, as if the spirit of Alice were initially dormant and only slowly emerged through Bénédicte's behaviour. Still,
I knew you could also see the story as entirely Alain's fantasy, so the ambiguity was deliberate.
The film seems to offer a cynical view of the young couple's bourgeois life.
I wouldn't say it's cynical, more that it's realistic. We all have secret fears and desires that erupt at some point.
I believe that you never quite know the person you live with: sometimes you might think you know your partner by heart and then something happens and they react in a way that makes them seem like a stranger. Alain tries to control everything, even through his job as an inventor of gadgets, yet when he sees Alice and she offers to abandon herself to him it attracts him because that loss of control is something he has suppressed.
Did you always have Charlotte Rampling in mind to play Alice?
I try not to think too much about actors when I'm writing in case the person I'm hoping for isn't free. But once we started the casting Charlotte Rampling came to mind very quickly. I think her screen persona is quite close to the character and I let her play it pretty much as she felt it should be. But there were times when we were on the wrong track and only gradually realised it. For instance, the scene where Alice arrives to seduce Alain was scheduled for her first day of shooting, and she played it as if Alice were so dominant it was close to her raping him.
It really wasn't working so we left it and returned to it the next day, and we realised it was the way Alice was ready to abandon herself that would disturb Alain rather than just her dominance.
Why a lemming?
The lemming was the first idea I had for the film, the image of a man discovering a dead lemming while unscrewing a U-bend to unblock a sink and trying to work out how it got there. I liked the image because it's something mundane that everyone does every now and then, and yet there's the absurdity that there should be a lemming trapped there. It's such an enigmatic animal: the popular belief that lemmings are suicidal is now discredited but it's still not fully understood why they make these great migrations. And the lemming made an odd contrast with Alain's need for rationality.