The low-key French domestic thriller The Lodger is an atmospheric and unformulaic exploration of the themes of loss, grief and detachment. While it’s a small-scale and restrained film, it’s a tense tale that pivots on the experiences of two women: Julie, a young medical student looking for cheap accommodation, and homeowner and lonely widow Elizabeth, eager to rent out a spare room in return for the company.
What’s soon apparent to Julie is that there is something odd about the living arrangements in the house, particularly about the status of Elizabeth’s unseen husband, Victor. Within minutes of the film’s opening, the central conceit of The Lodger is laid bare. It appears to Julie that overwhelming grief at Victor’s untimely death some twenty years earlier has left Elizabeth in a pathological, disassociated state of denial. For two decades, Elizabeth has laid out Victor’s empty clothes across furniture in the house, as if he were sitting in a living room chair or lying at rest in bed.
Rather than fleeing from her new surroundings, Julie’s own struggles with grief and her concern for her landlord’s mental state leads her to an inspired if risky decision. She purloins one of the nursing school’s medical dummies, dresses it in Victor’s attire, and places the figure in different settings in the home. Rather than being outraged or upset at Julie’s intervention, Elizabeth assumes that Victor’s return to three-dimensional form is part of some natural evolutionary process. What then unfolds in the remainder of the film is the story of the unsettling impact of the mannequin’s presence on the mental equilibrium of the two women who both find themselves implicated in a macabre and misconceived ménage a trois.
Julie is quiet and lacking in confidence. Her faltering efforts at student romance only confirm for her how repellant the young men interested in her are. Still pained by the grief at her own father’s death, her experiences convince her that she needs a connection with a more mature and respectful man who would be motivated by truly romantic intentions.
The presence of the dummy in the house gives rise to moments of confusion, as the inanimate figure is repeatedly found in unexpected locations in the house. But it seems clear that those mysterious moves, and the moments in which Victor appears to be still more corporeal, are intended to illustrate these characters’ own daydreams and existential fantasies. They are not intended as the opening gambits of a ghost story.
Most of the action unfolds within the confines of the house, a setting that adds to the sense of claustrophobia and isolation. Neither of the main characters feels comfortable in the wider world, and they both retreat from it. What becomes apparent as the film proceeds is the extent to which the aspirations of each of these two women are surprisingly similar.
The central performances of the film are impressive. Alice Isaaz shines as the young and fragile Julie, unsure of her place in the world and longing for reassurance. Jacqueline Bisset, something of a cinematic icon and a prolific and resilient actor since the 1960s, finds both the softness and the sharp edges of Elizabeth’s deluded sense of self. There’s tragedy, deceit, melancholy and ennui aplenty as the house’s long-held secrets surface and the bizarre love triangle bends out of shape.
It’s difficult to see The Lodger as a feminist film, although the script by Ollivier Briand, Mauricio Carrasco and Baptiste Drapeau is sympathetic to the unrequited longing of both women. Director Drapeau seems clear that both leading actors should bring out the sadness, rather than the badness, of these lost souls who, distracted by an otherwordly fantasy, turn on each other in their desperate need.
The Lodger will be available on Digital Download from October 18th