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The nightmare begins with what seems like a reasonable if perhaps too casual, real estate transaction. Simon Sandberg (Jérémie Renier) lives with his wife and teen daughter in an old-school Paris apartment building, the kind where you go through an arched entrance and enter a shared courtyard. Simon’s family has owned the flat for several generations, and a cellar comes with it. Simon’s got no use for the well-kept space and is keen to sell it and use the proceeds to renovate his family’s living quarters.
His buyer is a distinguished-looking older gentleman of sober mien, Jacques Fonzic, played by François Cluzet, one of the most stalwart and trustworthy-appearing actors in contemporary French cinema. After Simon boasts of the cellar’s condition—“no humidity, no mold”—he and Fonzic haggle over price, with Simon getting nearly all of what he asks, which is delivered in toto with a certified check.
Concerns begin almost immediately. A neighbor informs Simon that Fonzic is actually staying in the cellar, which he had said was for storage. Sure enough, there he is on a cot. Acting humiliated, Fonzic tells Simon that he’s between apartments. Simon allows him the use of a guest room in proximity to his family’s flat.
In the meantime, at home, Simon’s family has its own banal problems. Daughter Justine is eager to get her braces off. There’s mold on the bathroom ceiling that the super’s not too thrilled about dealing with. Things are pretty quiet for Simon’s medical technician wife Hélène (Bérénice Bejo), but that will change soon enough.
Soon, Fonzic questions Justine about her religion when she encounters him in the courtyard. A bartender at a nearby bistro tells Simon that Fonzic’s always coming in to use the bathroom, never buys anything, and calls the bartender a “dirty Arab” when confronted. A look into Fonzic’s Internet footprint reveals a vicious, antisemitic online conspiracy monger behind the reasonable façade. And it turns out the check he paid from the cellar is from a Spanish bank with ties to far-right organizations. Confronted about his writings, Fonzic insists on his right to “question” the prevalent narrative. Eventually, he works some of his twisted thinking into Justine’s brain.
As Simon’s efforts to reverse his mistake hit multiple legal brick walls, some viewers may remember the not-fully-baked 1990 tenant-from-hell thriller “Pacific Heights.” In that movie, said tenant was played by Michael Keaton, who was cast against the likable type. That’s the case here, sort of. It’s not entirely accurate in terms of screen iconography to say that casting Cluzet in this role is akin to casting Tom Hanks as the Holocaust-denier David Irving, but that’s close. In any event, Cluzet is superb in the role, even when the climax calls on him to show his hand in a way that’s arguably too obvious by half.
Renier, too, is superb in a role that carries a lot of thematic weight. Because the movie, directed by Phillipe Le Guay from a script concocted by Le Guay, Gilles Taurand, and Marc Weitzmann, is ultimately more of a problem picture than a thriller. Simon is ambivalent about his Jewish heritage, while his brother, David, played by Jonathan Zaccaï, is a more militant type. At the gym where Justine takes courses in Krav Maga, David introduces Simon to a couple of rough guys who would be happy to scare Fonzic by beating him senseless. Anti-Semitism in France is a particularly fraught issue. It has been since before the Dreyfus case (that was in the 1890s, kids), and its new iterations in the QAnon era are nerve-wracking, to say the least. “The Man in the Basement” doesn’t endorse a single answer; it ends on a deliberately tentative note, leaving the viewer thoroughly unsettled.
François Cluzet as Jacques Fonzic
Bérénice Bejo as Hélène Sandberg
Jérémie Renier as Simon Sandberg
Jonathan Zaccaï as David Sandberg
Martine Chevallier as Maître Rivière
Jack Claudany as Le proviseur
Antoine Levannier as Amos
Victoria Eber as Justine