‘The Man in the Basement’ Review: The Occupation of Paris

This nebulous French thriller tracks the unraveling of a Jewish family that accidentally sells their storage cellar to an antisemitic conspiracy theorist.

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By Beatrice Loayza

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A Jewish family’s new neighbor is an antisemitic conspiracy theorist in “The Man in the Basement,” a nebulous thriller by the French director Philippe Le Guay.

Not that their dingy storage cellar is fit for habitation — though like many Parisian sub-dwellings, it was once occupied by Jews in hiding during the war, as in François Truffaut’s “The Last Metro.”

Simon (Jérémie Renier), the family’s affable patriarch, suspects nothing when he sells the space to the ex-history teacher Jacques Fonzic (François Cluzet). The older man claims to want to offload his dead mother’s things sooner rather than later, and Simon doesn’t think twice about handing over the keys and cashing the check.

Turns out that’s enough to seal the deal under French law, so when Fonzic settles in to his underground abode, irritating the building’s other residents, Simon is powerless to evict the stranger even after he discovers the awful truth.

That Fonzic at times appears perfectly pleasant, even sagacious when he, for instance, invokes certain revisionist versions of American history, is a testament to Cluzet’s charms. But the most malignant people are just that — innocuous, friendly-seeming — spreading their beliefs like an odorless poison.

Simon grows desperate as his legal actions repeatedly fail, allowing Fonzic’s ongoing presence to corrupt his loved ones. His wife, Hélène (Bérénice Bejo), spirals, and his teenage daughter Nelly (Victoria Eber) — already a Krav Maga-practicing nonconformist who is in love with her cousin — finds herself drawn to the convincingly levelheaded Fonzic’s “freethinking” philosophy.

Despite Cluzet’s disarming performance and the film’s provocative conceit, Le Guay’s ideas — about modern-day Jewish identity, ideologies of victimhood, the emboldening of right-wing extremists, and the sundry loopholes offered to them by our systems of justice — swirl chaotically around the plot-heavy film, underdeveloped. Somewhere in “The Man in the Basement” there is a smart psychodrama sharpened by political urgency, but what we get is a middling think piece that too quickly loses momentum — and peters out by the end.

The Man in the Basement
Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. In theaters.

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