Over the years, Jacqueline Bisset’s career has gone through many ups and downs. She was one of the great English roses of 1960s cinema and collaborated with everybody from Audrey Hepburn to Alan Alda. Her beauty has immortalised her as a glamorous icon, but she always had a way of subverting her image. In Day for Night (1973) she portrayed a sex symbol who struggles with mental health issues and an unstable marriage. It was a gutsy move to play such a damaged, fragile figure when Hollywood seemed insistent on turning her into an untouchable goddess. The conflict between her serene outward appearance and the quiet hysteria that hides behind her polite grin has always been an essential part of her screen persona. You can never quite tell whether she’s toying with the people around her or planning to pull off some underhanded attack.
These qualities make her ideally suited to appearing in a horror movie. The genre requires performers who are able to keep the audience guessing as evidence piles up and the film rolls towards an inevitable conclusion. Surprisingly, she hasn’t made an appearance in a horror film since 1971 and has never received the opportunity to play a villain. The Lodger features her grand return to the genre and she portrays Elizabeth, an elegant, reserved widow who pretends that her dead husband is still alive by dressing up a doll and treating him like a real human being. She takes on Julie Moreau (Alice Isaaz), a young medical student, and tries to welcome her into her home. Moreau is charmed by Elizabeth’s unusual arrangement and silently agrees to go along with it. When Moreau sees video footage of Elizabeth’s husband Victor (François-Dominique Blin), she is surprised by how attractive and charming he appears to be. She begins to protect her fantasies onto this dead man and Elizabeth comes to believe that she has competition for her husband’s affections.
The actors are asked to carry this film on their shoulders and Bisset and Isaaz are more than up to the task. The film often functions as a chamber piece, with the interactions between Bisset and Isaaz taking up most of the running time. The former is convincing as a teasing seductress whose emotions can turn on a dime. She flits between gentle motherliness and violent passion in a calculated, practiced manner that suggests that she is used to wrapping young girls around her little finger. Isaaz is equally believable as the sweet innocent with a heart of gold. She has a guileless, open face that makes her seem like an easy target for Victor but she does find ways to delineate between Moreau’s extremely respectful attitude towards Elizabeth and her more casual behaviour in the presence of her friends. Moreau is sexually and emotionally repressed and this feeds into the romantic fantasies that she has. This is one of the many traits that she shares with Elizabeth and the script finds not so subtle ways to draw parallels between the two characters. The screenplay does include too much on the nose dialogue and it is a shame that the actors frequently have to work around it.
It never develops into an exceptionally well written or even exceptionally well thought-out story but there are always fascinating ideas at play. The central love triangle is complicated by the fact that Moreau seems torn between wanting to be with Elizabeth’s husband and simply wanting to be Elizabeth. She is as seduced by the image of a refined, cultured young lady as she is of a virile, handsome sailor. Elizabeth also appears to have designs on her houseguest and seems to revel in her ability to provoke and tease Moreau. Both women are madly in love with Victor because he can exist as a figment of their imagination. In death, he is a handsome face without a personality. They can project their vision of an ideal man onto the doll that Elizabeth uses to stand-in for her husband. When she is forced to confront the reality of who her husband was, Elizabeth is overcome with horror. Their shared desire to create a perfect man who will not challenge, threaten or disappoint them in any way, could be seen as an extension of their fear of being abandoned and rejected. They would rather have a wooden doll than a real, flesh and blood man and they both seem happy enough when they are trapped in their delusional fantasies. If they gave up on the doll, they would return to living in the real world, but would it be worth it?
All of this conflict is quite compelling when it is simmering just below the surface. When the screenwriters have to get around to justifying some of the sillier plot points and reaching a satisfying conclusion, they do drop the ball. You have to savour the wonderful performances in the first act in order to appreciate the strengths of The Lodger. It might look a bit silly when there are cuts between a wooden doll and a human hand but there are also going to be times when Bisset’s withering glare can cause you to shriek. If you are willing to accept that tradeoff, this film might appeal to you.
The Lodger is released on Digital Download and on DVD from Oct 18, 2021