In the Basement, which premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival and screened last week at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, may mark Ulrich Seidl’s return to feature documentaries after his “Paradise Trilogy,” but it signals no shift in his thematic concerns. The film’s title naturally indicates its predominant location: people’s actual basements or, alternately, their favored underground lairs, like a shooting a range. And it also reflects Seidl’s thematic preoccupation: the desires and behavior that humans keep to themselves, away from public view.
Seidl introduces us to a wide cast of characters who showcase a variety of proclivities. Some of them confirm Seidl’s commitment to highlighting the worst aspects of human behavior. In the aforementioned shooting range, two customers argue with the owner about the intelligence of Muslims, declaring, among other things, that Islam considers that “logic is something that goes against God.” This darkness, however, is only one piece of the tapestry. There’s sex as well, of course—an obvious inclusion that dominates the film’s running time and ultimately feels like pandering to what the audience will find most titillatingly provocative. Beyond that, and more successfully, the basement also becomes a repository for regrets, memories, and delusions—for charming pastimes, like the shooting-range owner’s opera singing, or, in the case of one man who shows off his “cozy room” filled with Nazi memorabilia, prejudices.
In the latter instance, it might seem like Seidl is being too dismissive, treating hateful ideology as a harmless hobby. But if basements are where we’re most secluded, what gets concealed there always follows us into the world. Underlying In the Basement is the notion that every man and woman on the street could, in secret, be a bigot or a great opera singer. That In the Basement considers a range of possibilities on this spectrum of hidden identities is what makes its exploration of the darkest corners of the human psyche equal to, if not superior, to Seidl’s most recent narrative features.
The Festival du Nouveau Cinéma runs from October 8—19.