DirectorPhilippe Le Guay
Release Date(s)2021 (February 28, 2023)
Studio(s)Les Films des Tournelles (Greenwich Entertainment/Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: F
French-made, The Man in the Basement (L’homme de la cave, 2021) is pretty terrific as a psychological thriller but the screenplay, by director Philippe Le Guay, Gilles Taurand, and Marc Weitzmann, ambitiously digs far deeper than usual for this kind of film, exploring multiple issues among many different intriguing characters.
Jérémie Renier stars as Simon Sandberg, who manages the old but large Paris apartment building his family—now including brother David (Jonathan Zaccaï) and mother Nelly (Denise Chalem)—has owned for generations. Simon, who lives on the building’s sixth floor, sells off storage space deep in the bowels of the cellar to Jacques Fonzic (François Cluzet), a retired history teacher whose elderly mother recently passed away. Too-trusting David makes a handshake deal with the soft-spoken senior, providing him with a key and depositing his check.
Simon quickly regrets that decision. Instead of using the basement for storage, Fonzic moves into the cellar. With no toilet of his own, he uses one at a nearby pub, upsetting its owner, leaving Fonzic to defecate in the apartment courtyard, upsetting the cleaning lady and annoying the neighbors. Worse, not only does Simon learn Fonzic lied—his mother died years ago, and he did not retire but rather was fired from his teaching job—but he soon learns Fonzic is a Holocaust denier and very active and vocal on the Internet, a minor celebrity among Europe’s anti-Semites.
Jewish Simon and his Catholic wife, Hélène (Bérénice Bejo), try to cancel the agreement, but Fonzic insists the cellar is legally his, prompting a long legal battle that will take months to resolve, if it can be resolved at all. Meanwhile, the other unhappy tenants of the building pressure Simon to hurry up and evict the oddball, potentially violent Fonzic. The issue puts a strain on Simon’s marriage and his relationships with his brother and mother, as well Simon’s rebellious teenage daughter, Justine (Victoria Eber), whom Fonzic grooms into questioning “official truths” about the murder of six million Jews.
The Man in the Basement is impressive on multiple levels. As a kind of Pacific Heights-type thriller, the film is unusually believable. Simon is a bit careless, but aren’t we all? He’s the kind of admirable person who wants to help others down on their luck, though his wife laments the consequences of his frequent casualness, which has come back to bite them before. It’s an innocent screw-up but one that results in a terrible ordeal for many people. Fonzic’s views are repellent, but superficially he presents himself as a calm, rational, even likable man—some of the time. Why is it okay, he asks, for him to get beaten up for expressing an unpopular opinion? What about free speech?
François Cluzet, cast against type, is outstanding as Fonzic. The film and his character reminded me a lot of Errol Morris’s great documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), about a self-styled execution innovator and later “researcher” as a Holocaust denier. Leuchter, likewise mild-mannered, is a fascinating character because he’s so convinced in his (deeply-flawed) research methods he cannot recognize the larger, basic amorality of his faulty conclusions. Cluzet doesn’t play him as an evil or crazy guy at all, but as an intelligent man who can’t fathom why others would find him so repellent.
The family dynamic and Simon’s relationship with his tenants also fascinates. Simon is a non-practicing Jew married to a Catholic woman yet, ironically, it’s she who’s most offended by Fonzic’s antisemitism. He wants the trouble Fonzic brings to go away without actually facing it. When Fonzic (presumably) paints a Jewish badge on Simon’s front door, he wipes it away before his wife and daughter can see it. He thinks he’s somehow protecting them but instead, as his wife angrily notes, he’s keeping them in the dark. Brother David wants to frame their lawsuit as a hate crime, but Simon resists thinking in those terms. Simon’s daughter, Justine, wants to study Krav Maga, the Israeli martial art, yet is malleable enough that, over time, Fonzic is able to seduce her with his wild conspiracy theories.
The tenants don’t care particularly about the anti-Semite aspects of Fonzic’s behavior—and, indeed, there an implication that Jewish badge painted on the door might have been the work of one of the neighbors, emboldened by Fonzic’s public declarations. At a tenant’s meeting to discuss ways of ousting Fonzic, several tenants raise the legitimacy of the family’s ownership of the building, pointing to a deed from when Nazi occupiers seized the building during the war, before it was returned to the family after. It’s a tense moment—tenants gingerly wanting proof that the Nazi seizure was indeed overturned.
Greenwich Entertainment’s DVD release (via Kino Lorber) is presented in 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen, the image excellent for a standard-def release, about as good as contemporary titles get in this format. (It was shot digitally, not on film, though it doesn’t look it.) The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is modest, but effective, and an alternate 2.0 stereo mix is offered. The excellent English subtitles are optional and the disc is Region 1 encoded.
Recent French cinema has been a real mixed bag, but The Man in the Basement works on all levels. Highly Recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV