There may be no right way to deal with grief, but there sure seem to be a lot of wrong ways! The Lodger provides a front row seat to a couple of ways that refusing to process grief can go wrong … while also reminding us to never rent a room in the home of an eccentric stranger still clinging to the past.
Julie (played by Alice Isaaz) leaves her rural home after the death of her mother and rents a room in the city from Elizabeth (Jacqueline Bisset), a widow, whose husband Victor died 20 years prior. Elizabeth doesn’t seem to have noticed, laying his clothes on chairs as though he was sitting in them, cooking him meals, and talking to him like he’s always been there. Julie is encouraged to play along. If it were me, I would immediately start looking for another place to live, but Julie seems only a little put off by it. I suppose free room and board in exchange for chores is a pretty good deal for a young nursing student.
After a few days Julie brings home a nursing school mannequin to fill out Victor’s lifeless suits. At about this point, she starts to let herself buy into the fantasy of Victor. The line begins to blur between what is Elizabeth impersonating or embodying Victor and what is Julie’s imagination of what a real life Victor might be like. She has conversations with Victor (the mannequin) while he does very real person things like smoke cigarettes and drink port. She confides in him that when her own father died her mother put away all of his things as though he never existed and we start to see why she might be so willing to explore this other way of remembering a loved one.
Eventually–likely because he is such a good listener–Julie begins to fall in love with her imagined idea of Victor…or the ghost of Victor…or Elizabeth’s stories of Victor? It’s really unclear exactly who, or what she is falling in love with. As Elizabeth begins to notice, things start to spiral out of control for both women. Elizabeth begins to fall apart at the seams. Meanwhile, Julie slips deeper into a delusional life where she and Victor are lovers. Bisset is absolutely stunning as a woman losing control of a story she has been writing in her own mind for 20 years. As a counterpoint, Izaaz brings Julie to life with a reserved coolness that only starts to warm up as she warms up to Victor.
The Lodger (original French title Messe Basse) is the first full-length film by director Baptiste Drapeau. In this film he has created a dreamy, fantastical world where the viewer is never sure what is real, only that most of it simply cannot be real. While the story is equally beautiful, tragic, and interesting, I am disappointed to see a fully female driven narrative that still revolves around a man and, ultimately, a love triangle. I think there would still be a compelling story to tell here without resorting to these tired tropes, and it is fortunate that such incredible acting by Izaaz and Bisset is there to keep it afloat.
The Lodger is currently screening at the 2021 Chattanooga Film Festival.