There’s value in taking on a first-rate villain. Ask Michael Keaton about that.
And what villainy could be more personal and relatable than an obnoxious “tenant” with “rights” who simply refuses to leave, and cannot be easily evicted? Remember Keaton in “Pacific Heights?”
The great François Cluzet of the downbeat French buddy comedy “The Intouchables,” the recent charmer “The Kitchen Brigade” and “Tell No One” makes a seething, loathsome impression in the deed-or-no-deed thriller “The Man in the Basement.”
He plays an older, down on his luck ex-teacher who gets a break from the owner (Jérémie Renier) of an unused basement space in the apartment he inherited that the teacher wants to buy.
“We trust each other,” Simon chirps (in French with English subtitles). He’s happy to have this property off his books. “You’re doing me a favor,” the new owner, “cleaning out my late mother’s place” and thus needing storage, agrees.
But it turns out, the guy’s mother died years before. It turns out, the “teacher” was fired for cause, for teaching disinformation to his history students. It turns out, the guy’s a Holocaust Denier.
Simon is Jewish. And he doesn’t find out any of that until a neighbor tells him “The man who bought the cellar slept in it last night.”
Thus begins an ever-escalating war of wills and struggle over “legal rights,” threats, “Pacific Heights” harassment with a hint of “Cape Fear” as the “teacher” gets in the head of not just Simon’s neighbors, but of Simon’s impressionable teenaged daughter (Victoria Eber).
Director and co-writer Philippe Le Guay, who did the memorable Jean Rochefort comedy “Florida,” makes his latest, titled “L’homme de la cave” in France, an essay on what one lawyer Simon consults with refers to as “The Age of Doubt.”
“Facts” get online pushback, no matter how buttressed and documented they are. If nothing is truly “knowable,” how can people even have a civil debate? It’s as much a problem in America and France as it is everywhere else. Fringe figures make every Internet user an “expert” via lies and misinformation, and debates on accepted, provable truth become shouting matches between the informed and the misinformed.
Simon married a Catholic (Bérénice Bejo of “A Knight’s Tale” and the Oscar winning “The Artist”), a phlebotomist who finds herself drawn down the rabbit hole of “understanding” the psychotic, aggrieved, Holocaust-denying Right. She hears Simon’s mother relate pieces of family lore, and starts looking into their history, the uncle killed in the Holocaust and the tragic story of this very apartment.
Whatever she figures out about Fonzic, the nut in their basement, soon she and we understand Simon’s anger, his older brother’s hair-trigger outrage and the (Jewish) “community’s” interest in this situation.
Cluzet brings a marvelous edge to the tit-for-tat exchanges that ratchet up the anger, which is pretty much what his character wants. Oh yes, he’s easy to hate.
Renier, who’s turned up in a couple of Brendan Gleeson movies (“In Bruges,””Frankie”), aptly demonstrates the breakdown of a compassionate man, all caused — as one and all REMIND him — because the professional builder and architect handed over the KEYS before signing the deed.
Stories like this have an inevitability that makes them almost a genre unto themselves, with the only variations being the level of legalese and how insidious the “squatter” is. Yes, it’s somewhat predictable.
But Le Guay tucks great points about the “Age of (Sowing) Doubt” by the determined-to-misinform inside a thriller that will make any property owner squirm with “I wonder what MY rights are?” discomfort and flush with anger every time it turns out “Not as many as you think” as this tale hits closer and closer to home.
And Cluzet, very much the Frenchman’s Frenchman in many a movie, adds a fine, hissable stinker to his long resume of delicious character roles.
Rating: unrated, violence, profanity, racial slurs
Cast: François Cluzet, Jérémie Renier, Bérénice Bejo, Jonathan Zaccaï, Victoria Eber and Sharif Andoura
Credits: Directed by Philippe Le Guay, scripted by Philippe Le Guay, Gilles Taurand and Miles Weitzmann. A Greenwich Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:54