Man in the Basement review: Great French film comes home

The Shareholder (“Pacific Heights,” anyone?) gets a provocative new twist in The Man in the Basement, a gripping, intelligent, and timely film that’s part thriller, part domestic drama, and cautionary tale.

Director Philippe Le Guay (“Bicycling With Molière,” “The Women on the 6th Floor”), who co-wrote the stacked screenplay with Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann, was inspired by a true incident involving a French Jew Couple who unwittingly sold their basement storage to a neo-Nazi. He continued to physically implicate himself, they couldn’t legally make him leave, and trauma ensued.

In the film version, married Paris apartment dwellers Simon (Jérémie Renier) and Hélène Sandberg (Bérénice Bejo from The Artist) sell their basement rooms to seemingly mild-mannered former history teacher Jacques Fonzic (François Cluzet from The Intouchables), only to find out about it that he is a Holocaust denier and conspiracy theorist. Although the property deed has not yet been completed, Simon has already signed a promise to buy, deposited Jacques’ payment check and handed him the basement key. So under French law, Jacques is technically the “owner” and is allowed to stay — at least until the Sandbergs find a legal way to oust him and void the entire transaction.

To add fuel to the fire, Simon is Jewish with a great-uncle who died in the Holocaust. Meanwhile, Simon owns the apartment with his mother (Denise Chalem) and brother (Jonathan Zaccaï), who bring their own issues – family and otherwise – to the dilemma. In an effective and believable outcome, the bewildering situation begins to hold a mirror up to Simon, expose his personal flaws and crack the facade of his idyllic life as a successful family man and architect.

What ensues is an increasingly tense game of cat-and-mouse between wealthy Simon and penniless Jacques, in which Simon, hiring crippled lawyer after crippled lawyer, begins to unravel while Jacques redoubles his feigned victimization and sleazy hypocrisy . The irony: Simon begins to look like the troublemaker and Jacques, who also deals in anti-Semitism on the Internet, the misunderstood innocent.

Le Guay and his co-authors deftly capture the insidious, manipulative ways in which haters and revisionists can calmly ignite their critics, while seeming fleetingly sane to some more impressionable observers. Namely, Jacques claims that people only want the “official version” of the story. “We have to draw our own conclusions,” he explains. “That’s being free.”

A man stands in an open doorway and looks at the camera

François Cluzet in the film The Man in the Cellar.

(Caroline Bottaro / Greenwich Entertainment)

Jacques also describes his late wife as “allergic to preconceptions”. He and his ilk also seem “allergic” to such troublesome things as facts and evidence, making a rational conversation between opposites like Simon and Jacques a non-starter. Where can two opponents go from there?

In a poignant twist, Jacques manages to use his chilling brand of “logic” to trick Simon and Hélène’s bright but prickly teenage daughter Justine (Victoria Eber) into driving him from an utter disdain to possibly considering his point of view – at least in terms of the freedom to ask challenging questions.

Surprisingly – or perhaps not – many of Simon and Hélène’s co-owners are also less outraged by Jacques’ presence on the premises than they initially were, because they either didn’t want to take a stand or, in the case of at least one resident, perhaps share some of Jacques’ beliefs share. Hélène’s uncouth father (Patrick Descamps) also proves that you don’t have to be a full-fledged racist to have racist tendencies.

All of this causes Simon to feel alienated from those around him, including Hélène and Justine, and undermines his plan to use group strength to send Jacques packing. Then Simon must go rogue for good, and that’s as scary as anything we’ve seen so far.

Le Guay effectively keeps the pressure on his characters and their charged situation throughout, using ominous camera angles and anxious musical cues to add to the horror and uncertainty. He has good support from Renier and Cluzet, who embrace their different roles with unnerving intensity.

It’s a great movie.

“The Man in the Cellar”

Not rated

In French with English subtitles.

Duration: 1 hour 54 minutes.

To play: Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Lämmle town center 5, Encino Man in the Basement review: Great French film comes home

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