In the profound and deeply disturbing French film The man in the basement a man named Simon Sandberg (played by the lovable and endearing Jeremie Renier, a real discovery) sells a small basement apartment in his co-op building to cover additional expenses needed for another maintenance increase. The buyer, a demanding and thorny old coot named Jacques Fonzic (Francois Cluzet), who under the contract was to use the space only for storage, takes advantage of Simon’s deferment of the lease (a major mistake), and moves in and sleeps there, breaking building regulations and causes immediate problems for all other neighbours. He litters the courtyard with rubbish, traumatizes the Sandberg daughter by accusing her of pretending to be Catholic to avoid admitting that her last name is really Jewish, uses the toilet in the cafe across the street, and never says “Thank you” but calls the bartender a “dirty Arab.” So he is not only arrogant and rude, but also a racist.
THE MAN IN THE CELLAR ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Fonzic claims he lost his job as a history professor for telling the truth about falsified historical facts, but Simon is shocked to learn that Fonzic was really fired in disgrace for teaching his students monstrous lies to form his own revisionist opinions on everything to support Joan. of Arc (who was never burned at the stake) and Napoleon (who never died in St. Helena) to the Holocaust (six million Jews did not die in World War II and the German concentration camps were a figment of someone’s imagination).
Simon Sandberg – Jewish but not particularly religious – is mortified that he unknowingly sold property to an anti-Semite and wants to cancel the sale. Fonzic refuses to return the keys. And he is supported on the internet by organized neo-fascists who peddle conspiracy theories, as well as other online conservatives who torture him for losing his job over freedom of speech. Lawyers are hired. In battles, other residents of the co-op turn against each other, pronouncing 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 horrific 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 legal thinking just because you don’t agree with it. (The reverse is also true, but politicians today are so corrupt that they fail to give equal treatment to decency, integrity, and fair play. This is a movie that should be watched on both sides of the congressional aisle.)
Director Philippe de Guay’s riveting screenplay (with assistance from writers Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzman) explores the diverse issues plaguing and dividing the world we now live in, and his clever, balanced direction gives you valid reasons to ask your own questions . political dynamics. Character revelations reinforce the ideological issues boiling beneath a film’s surface that are so relevant to the alarming and disturbing times we wake up to on a daily basis. The level of professional acting ensures a compelling ensemble. Jeremie Renier and Berenice Bejo are perfect as the pair whose calm lives are intruded and challenged by the impact of radical thinking. My only reservation is the unresolved ending. Exhausted by endless lawsuits, negative publicity, legal woes and personal defeats, the cellar is empty and abandoned, with its rightful owner still in doubt. It’s the kind of conclusion that throws you into limbo. But as it unfolds, The man in the basement is as provocative, intelligent and exciting as anything you’re likely to see this year.
Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.