'In the Basement': Venice Review

Courtesy of Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion
Ulrich Seidl returns to documentary to explore the hidden grotesqueries of the Austrian soul

Who let the ids out?

What people keep in their basements often reveals more about them than one would care to know, opines In the Basement (Im Keller). This latest, outrageous offering comes from Ulrich Seidl, the chronicler of the Austrian Catholic soul, whose fictional Paradise trilogy (Love, Faith and Hope) literally bared all. With its heaping plate of obese, misshapen and often nude bodies engaged in unspeakable acts, the current doc won't disappoint his fans; it just feels slighter coming after three watersheds in the director's career. It bowed out of competition in Venice, where the director has twice taken home the Special Jury Prize. In any case, its festival life is assured and commercial prospects could be rosy if distributors bank on Seidl's cult following and the eye-popping scenes of supposedly real S&M that pepper the film.

Actually one has to wonder if all the outlandish subjects are drawn from life or if a bit of artistic license has been taken in a film whose screenplay credit reads, "based on a concept and idea by Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz." After establishing the anonymous bourgeois facades of homes discreetly hidden behind manicured hedges, the camera descends into the Freudian terrain of the underground, where the lunatic fringe emerges. One man uses his basement alternately to sing opera arias and for target practice on projected figures on the wall. A plump hunter dressed for a safari exhibits the heads of all the African game species he has killed. A batty old lady locks herself in her condo basement to cuddle and croon to a distressingly lifelike doll. A man who plays polkas in a brass band calmly dusts off his collection of Nazi memorabilia. Another character watches a huge snake in a glass cage make quick work of a little white mouse.

In short, everyone has an obsession and uses the basement of their house to release it. Things get seriously weird in the second half of the film when the sex fantasies start to surface. The first subject is a chubby, hairy man who cleans the bathroom in the nude, licking the shower screen clean. He is the love slave of a plump pink-haired mistress who commands him to do her bidding, which becomes progressively more demanding. Suffice it to say a great deal of explicit male nudity is involved along with the use of some painful-looking torture instruments and sex toys. Other scenes show a fleshy young prostitute and her skinny client, both wearing strappy sex gear, whose deadpan explanations of their activities are howlers. In the same vein, a wiry red-haired woman, who would be naked if she wasn't trussed up like a turkey, describes how pain of all types turns her on. The proof is forthcoming in a graphic scene of S&M whipping that leaves zero to the imagination. But the clincher is her day job: counseling abused women for a Catholic charity.

Make of it what you will, this off-the-wall film essay entertains hugely while it makes the audience squirm in their seats. Martin Gschlacht's cinematography reinforces the grotesque subjects with his alarming visual symmetries and fixed framing, while editor Christopher Brunner keeps you guessing with his unpredictable cuts between characters.

Production company: Ulrich Seidl Film Produktion in association with the Austrian Film Institute, Vienna Film Fund, Land Niederosterreich, WDR, ORF
With: Fritz Lang, Alfreda Klebinger, Manfred Ellinger, Inge Ellinger, Josef Ochs, Alessa Duchek, Gerald Duchek, Cora Kitty, Peter Vokurek, Walter Holzer
Director: Ulrich Seidl
Concept: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz
Producer: Ulrich Seidl
Director of photography:
Martin Gschlacht
Christopher Brunner
Sales: Coproduction Office

No rating, 86 minutes.