Friday, January 27, 2023

The Man in the Basement

It is worth remembering Kipling’s advice to “keep your head when all about you are losing their and blaming it on you,” when considering this film. The Sandbergs’ nasty new neighbor is a master at provoking their anger, so he can pose as the victim. Unfortunately, Simon Sandberg invited the Holocaust-denying internet troll Jacques Fonzic into his building, by selling him his basement (a stand-alone entrance storage unit) in Philippe Le Guay’s The Man in the Basement, which opens today in New York.

It helps to have a sense of the Sandberg’s building. The apartments (administered under condo terms) face a courtyard, with stand-alone cellar storage available in the basement level. Due to subdividing over the years, the Sandberg family (including Simon’s mother and brother David) wound up owning two “basements,” so they decided to sell one.

Fonzic stepped forward to buy it. Supposedly, he would only use it as intended, but he started living there, much to the building’s alarm. Rather belatedly, Sanberg started to dig into Fonzic’s past, learning he had been dismissed from his high school position for teaching Holocaust denialism. Even though they had not finalized the transfer of title, they are still stuck with him under French law, because they cashed his check and gave him the key. Alarmed by his vitriol, they hire lawyers to void the sale. However, they are not prepared for Fonzic’s psychological warfare. Soon, his manipulations turn their neighbors against Sandberg and sow divisions with his wife Helene and daughter Justine.

Le Guay and co-screenwriters Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann chillingly depict the ways Fonzic uses the Sandbergs’ emotions against them. It is truly painful to watch the mixed Jewish-Catholic family keep walking into his traps. This film has real insights into how extremists seed doubt among ostensibly decent people and stimulate dissension. Le Guay also vividly and viscerally illustrates the dire consequences of losing one’s cool. However, his command of tone is uncertain, vacillating from thriller, to Polanski-ish horror film, and over to a social issue drama, in the tradition of
Skokie and Denial, never permanently settling on one.

Regardless, Fran
çois Cluzet is terrific, somewhat playing against type, as the sinister Fonzic. He is an unusually cerebral for a villain, but that is why he is so unsettling. Jeremie Renier is also extremely believable as Sandberg, the hot-tempered everyman. However, Berenice Bejo is stuck with a lot of screen time for Helene Sandberg, but little sense of purpose for the character.

Le Guay based the story on the very real-life difficulties his friends endured over a decade ago. Including the Sandberg family’s tragic history during the Holocaust might seem like piling on at first—ironically, his uncle hid in that very same basement, until he was denounced—but it becomes very important to later narrative developments. Le Guay’s execution is not perfect, but the film is sufficiently thoughtful and provocative warrant serious viewing. Plus, Cluzet does some of the best work of his older-gentleman-period. Respectfully recommended,
The Man in the Basement opens today (1/27) in New York, at the Quad.