“The Man in the Basement” sounds like a horror movie, doesn’t it? And that ominous title is well-matched by an edgy score, tense editing, and a tough-to-watch buildup of pressure. But in Philippe Le Guay’s sharp French drama it’s the dead who need rescuing and the living who must save them. What’s more, the only weapons used are words.
So, is this a ghost story? Not in the traditional sense. In fact, Le Guay’s concerns are very much of the present. Simon Sandberg (Jérémie Renier, “Saint Laurent”), a liberal Jewish father in Paris, sells a cellar space below his apartment to a kindly, recently retired history teacher. Only it turns out that the teacher, Monsieur Fonzic (François Cluzet, “Intouchables”), didn’t exactly retire voluntarily. And while he mildly defends his methodology as “merely asking questions,” the questions he asks are intended to cast doubt on the existence of the Holocaust.
There are signs, early on, that things are awry. Simon’s lovely Catholic wife Hélène (Bérénice Bejo, “The Artist”) notices water rot in the corner of their beautiful flat. Simon sustains an ugly, spreading bruise while cleaning out the basement for his new tenant. When Fonzic first meets their teen daughter, Justine (Victoria Eber), he immediately asks her religion, and when she uncomfortably responds he observes a bit too quickly that “Sandberg doesn’t sound like a Catholic name.”
Le Guay (“The Women on the 6th Floor”) cuts back and forth between the family members’ interactions with their troublesome new tenant and their increasingly desperate—and disparate—approaches to him. Under French law it’s a crime to deny the Holocaust, but it’s also illegal to back out of a real estate sale once the check has been cashed. Simon’s religious brother David (Jonathan Zaccaï) wants to forcibly kick Fonzic out, using the argument that they’re dealing with a clear-cut case of anti-Semitism in a country with a problematic history.
The more secular Simon isn’t interested in what he sees as David’s emotional response and wants to find some kind of legal standing based entirely on Fonzic’s tenancy. “I don’t want to get hung up on the past,” he insists. Hélène pushes for David’s approach, Simon’s mother (Denise Chalem) is torn, and the spirits of his father and his great-uncle, who died at Auschwitz, hang over every decision they try to make.
Meanwhile, even as Fonzic’s presence ruptures the family, he’s getting closer to establishing himself in their apartment complex. He insults some neighbors (guess which ones), but wins defenders by helping others with errands. And his relationship with Justine is particularly worrisome. “Is searching for the truth a crime?” he calmly asks this intelligent, unhappy teen. “All that matters,” he adds, “is to be a free thinker.” Well, now that he mentions it, haven’t her parents always taught her to question everything? To approach authority with skepticism? Shouldn’t she at least hear what Fonzic has to say about World War II?
The performances are impeccable, and the film’s structural elements are deftly handled across the board. But because Le Guy’s adroit script—which he cowrote with Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann–brings the past into the present so realistically (Fonzic might as well use the term “crisis actors”), “The Man In the Basement” is often almost unbearably fraught. So, no, it’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense. In a way, though, it’s worse. We can dismiss the hauntings of the eerily supernatural, but we can’t deny the encroachment of the seductively irrational.