In Ulrich Seidl’s latest, the unconscious is an actual place only for the sake of cinematic expediency, rendered filmable through the figure of the basement, that lowest and most foundational level of one’s home. Here lies the contradiction and the conceptual genius of In the Basement, which surveys the unspeakable things we do, and the unavowable creatures we allow ourselves to become, when there’s nobody looking.
While Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Paige were able to go up and down the supposed levels of the mind in Inception as if it were a site literally accessible through an elevator (if only we were small enough to enter), Seidl’s real-life characters are caught between the walls of their underground rooms, but have never roamed any further, or rather, closer, to themselves. Cinema hasn’t been this close to the dusty cogs of desire’s machinery, this unapologetic about pleasure, since Pasolini. The unconscious doesn’t filter the objects of its affection according to good manners, Seidl suggests. Desire cannot distinguish, or doesn’t give two fucks about distinguishing, a kiss from a slap, a pair of hands from a pair of pliers, a swastika from a vagina.
The idea of the basement as playground for the id isn’t declared or overplayed. Seidl announces nothing. His camera bears the hands-off sadism of the infant who takes pleasure in fantasizing the physical punishment of another child in Freud’s “A Child Is Being Beaten.” There’s enough pleasure in looking and not touching. And, frankly, the drama is so fascinating that it’s paralyzing. Such directorial detachment recalls the work of Brazilian filmmaker Eduardo Coutinho, albeit in less Manichaean ways, as Seidl is able to control the frame with such precision without ever intervening inside it.
Somehow the spectacle unfolds—in its repetitive simplicity—as if its rawness were choreographed. Yet, no matter how beautifully synched and timed these bodies assume their positions underground, there’s never a glimmer of artifice. This is the body at ease, singing an aria, caressing a toy, feeding a giant snake, or mopping the floor. These men and women have been rehearsing for their close-up for a long time, resorting to their basements to loosen up the grip of sociality like a survival ritual.
The basement is the place where, for instance, a woman keeps her uncannily human-looking baby dolls inside boxes, men play their instruments and shoot their guns, Hitler aficionados fraternize in the absence of women, sex slaves are kept for testicle torture and gynecological recreation, and a naked woman tied with rope is able to stare at the camera and articulate the least sanitized edges of her longings: “I like pain of every kind. Blows of all kinds, with and without marks, being scolded, that sort of thing.” This isn’t a fantasy or a fetish; this is desire with a microphone.
The fact that the film’s subjects relegate “totally letting go,” as one self-described masochist puts it, to the smallest and window-less quarters of their very own homes is perhaps more puzzling than whatever activities they engage in. Besides the obvious remove from an outside gaze, what else is it about the basement that lends itself to such freedoms? Its uterine smallness? Its dust and grime? Seidl suggests that this safe space for dangerous play invites some kind of infantile return. The aloneness of childhood is here, the way naked bodies occupy cages as if queering baby-proof fences, armed men guard the front of their garages, revealing the vulnerability of what it holds. This whole setup suggests a freedom that can only last in a hyper-controlled environment, and which is set into motion through the simultaneous fear of and yearning for some fantasy figure who’ll soon come home and catch one red-handed—which is to say, an ever erotic game of hide and seek.