In the profound and deeply troubling French film The Man in the Basement, a man named Simon Sandberg (played by the amiable and ingratiating Jeremie Renier, a real discovery) sells a small cellar apartment in his co-op building to meet additional expenses needed for a new maintenance increase. The buyer, an exacting and thorny old coot named Jacques Fonzic (Francois Cluzet) who, according to contract, is supposed to use the space only for storage, takes advantage of Simon’s postponement of the lease (a big mistake), and moves in and sleeps there, breaking the building rules and causing immediate problems for all of the other neighbors. He litters the courtyard with garbage, traumatizes the Sandberg daughter by accusing her of pretending to be Catholic to avoid admitting her family name is really Jewish, uses the rest room in the cafe across the street and never says “Thank you,” instead calling the bartender a “dirty Arab.” So he’s not only arrogant and rude, but a racist, too.
THE MAN IN THE BASEMENT ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Fonzic claims that he lost his job as a history professor because he told the truth about falsified historic facts, but Simon is appalled to learn that Fonzic was really fired in disgrace for teaching his students monstrous lies to support his own revisionist opinions about everything from Joan of Arc (who was never burned at any stake) and Napoleon (who never died in St. Helena) to the Holocaust (six million Jews didn’t die in World War II and the German concentration camps were a figment of somebody’s imagination).
Simon Sandberg—Jewish but not particularly religious—is mortified that he has unknowingly sold real estate to an anti-Semite and wants to cancel the sale. Fonzic refuses to return the keys. And he’s supported on the internet by organized neo-Fascists spouting conspiracy theories as well as other online conservatives who martyr him for losing his job because of freedom of speech. Lawyers are hired. In-fighting turns other residents of the co-op against each other, mouthing the old adage that there are two sides to every story. Family members fight among themselves and the daughter shocks them all by siding with the heinous heel who acts as the wedge between her family’s sometimes unfair legal pursuits and their rightful need for justice. What the law teaches Simon is that in a free society, you can’t prosecute anyone for right-wing thinking just because you don’t agree with them. (The reverse is also veracious, but politicians are so corrupt today that they don’t give decency, integrity and fair play an equal shake. This is a film that should be required viewing on both sides of the Congressional aisle.)
The riveting screenplay by director Philippe de Guay (with an assist from writers Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzman) examines the diverse issues that plague and divide the world we live in now, and his smart, balanced direction will give you valid reasons to question your own political dynamics. Character revelations enhance the ideological issues boiling beneath the surface of a film so relevant to the alarming and unsettling times we wake up to daily. The level of professional acting makes for an entrancing ensemble. Jeremie Renier and Berenice Bejo are perfect as the couple whose placid lives are invaded and challenged by the impact of radical thinking. My only reservation is the unresolved ending. Exhausted by the endless court battles, negative publicity, legal snafus and personal defeats, the basement is empty and deserted, and the rightful owner still in question. It’s the kind of conclusion that plunges you into limbo. But as it unfolds, The Man in the Basement is as provocative, intelligent and suspenseful as anything you are likely to see this year.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.