Though the title positions the latest Ulrich Seidl documentary as being about basements, in actuality it’s mostly focused on the people within them. Whilst the paraphernalia and oddities on show in the dens of these Austrian citizens tends to amuse, shock or confuse, Seidl is focused on what these spaces can tell us about these people, and thereafter who these people see themselves as; in an interview with the Austrian Film Commission he said that the basement is “the place where people attain their true selves,” and In The Basement (Im Keller) is keen to capture that self-actualisation. Conceptually it’s most aligned with his 1995 documentary Animal Love, which filmed Austrians who had a little too much affection for their pets, though unlike Animal Love and 1992’s Good News, here Seidl doesn’t seem to overtly mock his subjects. He lets the people he films self-sabotage where needed, but for the most part they appear as evidence of human neuroses and absurdity; staring into the camera from within their basement these silent sequences serve to question the audience into considering their own hidden desires and obsessions.
Seidl has always been fixated on what he calls “staged reality”, the blurring of fact and fiction, wherein his documentaries seem slightly staged and his fiction films employ documentary techniques to give them a greater sense of realism. In The Basement is clearly more documentary than some of his other hybrid films (Models), though there are sequences where it seems that Seidl has perhaps encouraged certain expressions – for instance, there’s an Islamophobic conversation early on that reveals an inherent hypocrisy in one subject that comes off a little too on-the-nose.
It’s as much staged reality as it is ‘controlled reality’, as Seidl approaches the film as curator of people rather than a documentarian of them. The carefully selected participants in the film allow for a discernible arc of focus, as we move through a string of mostly harmless eccentrics – a woman who disturbingly collects baby dolls and fantasises about them all being her children, a man who runs gun control lessons in the silo attached to his house – then suddenly to highly explicit sexual activities happening beneath the house floorboards. Of course, it’s hard to comment on that without drawing to mind Josef Fritzl, but Seidl does a somewhat remarkable job in always tethering these activities to the subjects within; though at times people might only feature in one shot in the film, with their odd collections the focal point moreso than themselves, for every subject who is sharing or revealing their sexuality or sexual preferences, Seidl has them talk frankly to the camera (thus audience) about their lives, fetishes and the intersection of the two, which in turn serves to destigmatise types of sexual exploration. Perhaps the most impressive instance of this is in a section featuring a woman who identifies as a masochist and who we see be whipped for sexual pleasure, who later reveals to Seidl’s camera that she has been in two very abusive relationships and works in a Catholic Church-funded domestic violence shelter. Rather than draw an uncomfortable parallel between domestic violence and sado-masochism, instead Seidl has this woman very subtly and powerfully comment on the clear distinction between both, anchored around knowledge of consent.
In this idea of curation and control, In The Basement seems the closest Seidl has gotten to aping Roy Andersson’s stories of human absurdity. Whilst he lacks Andersson’s mostly rigid formalism with some tangential handheld camera sequences, the focus of Basement and You, The Living are vaguely aligned, looking at humanity with a sharply focused lens, and there are some clear visual allusions – one shot features a man sitting in his lounge room playing the french horn, another shot of that same man reveals him to be a collector of Nazi memorabilia, in what is one of the most surreal sequences in the film, which, in fact, becomes even stranger outside of the film, as that some of that man’s bandmates were city counsellors, something Seidl had no idea of at the time of filming.
As in Andersson’s film, with surreality comes humour, and In The Basement will likely be one of the most deceptively funny films to play at the festival this year. Seidl’s eclectic cast of characters sees him find a hunter who serves as his answer to Errol Morris’ amazing turkey hunter in Vernon, Florida,1 men who claim that they can taste the grapes in their wine better in a basement filled with Nazi flags, and a sex slave/mistress relationship that is conveyed in such specific detail so as to actively shock the average viewer. He also has some hysterical visual punchlines that appear dotted throughout, mostly through juxtaposition of normalcy and perceived difference courtesy of editor Christoph Brunner; there’s an early montage of older men exercising in their basements that picks up pace only to cut to a woman in a blue tracksuit standing far to the right of a laundry room, with a dryer in the center running. The abruptness of the shift is so naturally funny and showcases Seidl’s keen awareness of audience expectation and sense of humour.2
Seidl’s return to pseudo-documentary following his impressive Paradise trilogy once more furthers his theory of the dark absurdity underlying normalcy, though rather than go the nihilistic route of his countryman Haneke he instead showcases an odd affinity for his subjects that the viewer can’t help but share. If anything, after seeing In The Basement, you will be able to tell people you have seen a (consenting) human sex slave do the dishes with a few kilos worth of weights on their penis, which, let’s face it, might just be worth the price of admission alone.
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