Met at the 2021 Angoulême Festival, Philippe Le Guay presented his film “L’Homme de la cave”, a psychological thriller in which a Holocaust denier settles in the basement of an a priori happy and solid couple. A pertinent analysis of the great danger represented by the discourse of denial, in a film that wisely plays with childish fears and fears. The director answered our questions
Meeting with Philippe Le Guay
Philippe Le Guay presented his film in October 2021 The man from the cellar, chronicle of the destruction of a family by the intrusion into their construction of a denier, embodied by a terrifying François Cluzet. A film that analyzes a great contemporary evil, that of the negationist and conspiracy discourse, and that does so with a real desire for cinema, proposing sequences worthy of a good home invasion. We were able to ask him some questions.
The subject of The man from the cellar is at the same time very contemporary and timeless, how did you write this film?
Philippe Le Guay : I started writing this script in 2009, first for a year with Gilles Taurand and then for a few months with Marc Weitzmann, who is very familiar with Holocaust denial, its impulses and perversions. And then I stuck, for ten years. I dropped the subject, I didn’t feel equipped to deal with this story. So I did The women of the 6th floorwhich is the perfect antidote The man from the cellar. And then two years ago, perhaps guided by what is happening today, by the conspiracy, by the trivialization of an entire speech, this story came back to my mind. I took it back, went back and this time I went all the way.
You’ve put together a brilliant cast, most notably with a François Cluzet like we’ve never seen him before.
I shot with him Naked Normandy, where he played a role completely opposite to this. The mayor of a small town, a good guy, close to the peasants, compassionate, generous. François has all this, but seeing him at work, knowing him, I discovered the breadth of his register.
And I saw a tension, a type of violence that he has completely mastered, but which is there, a look that can also be frightening. With his complicity, I wanted to explore it. It’s great when you can take an actor to something else, explore other avenues, and come up with a character together.
Jérémie Renier and Bérénice Bejo already form a super glamorous couple, with innocence. It seems that nothing has happened to them, they are beautiful, they have a 16 year old daughter, they both work. It’s all right, and that innocence will be undermined. All the ghosts, all the past of their family history, with which they are quite in harmony, will reappear and crush them. We start from this innocence so that they then become almost enemies, opposed to each other. Both Jérémie and Bérénice have coped well, with strength, the violence of this situation and are on a real journey.
Could this famous cellar in this building be a metaphor for human consciousness? The idea that in oneself, in the depths of each person, there is always this part of shadow and violence?
These are things I heard and had to make the film to really judge them. On the one hand, what is the part of evil in us? What is the part of the repressed? On the surface, we live with a clear conscience, we go to work, we walk the streets, we have a social life, we have children.
Apparently everything is fine but, hidden away, like in a cellar for example, there is the repressed, the violence, the drive, the nauseating, everything you don’t want to see. And Fonzi, the character of François Cluzet, embodies this impulse, this bad conscience. And this is certainly in all of us.
That’s what you see in this condo of normal people, people first benevolent, but we realize that a trifle is enough for something to happen. Violence for example. I thought about the years of the Occupation. How do we do it, how do we make a pact with the enemy, how do we take a stand, resist or, conversely, let it rot? In The man from the cellarthere is this idea of rebirth, rebirth of this terrible time. As a collusion, these nightmares from the past are very present.
Your film analyzes how the poison of denial discourse spreads and endangers human organizations. A house, a condominium, the whole company. How do you perceive this speech?
The truth, in conspiratorial discourse, is considered suspect. There is this idea of saying: “Do we really know what happened?”. Everything is possibly reinterpretable, not to propose a higher truth, but simply to destroy what we know. It is a complex issue, in the United States, for example, Holocaust denial is not a crime. There, freedom of expression guarantees that you can say anything, in the name of freedom. This is the example we had with Trump, who only told lies.
But strangely, it may seem like the one telling the truth. Because he would say what not everyone dares to say. From there a reversal takes place, we say “has the courage to say …”. So Fonzi’s character says “after all I’m a free thinker”, “I’m in my cellar but I’m free”. In her relationship with Simon and Hélène’s daughter there is also the risk that it will open up and she finds herself trapped in this discourse. It’s dramatic, we feel that if she fluctuates, then her whole generation can do it.
The man from the cellar it is also a film that borrows a variety of film genres, including horror, with this danger lurking in the cellar.
There is a game about childhood fears. We all remember a parent who asked to take apart a garbage can, to look for a log in the cellar, and we are in the dark, we groped, we hesitate. As if all the demons were hiding in this cellar, which is the place of repression, of bad thoughts. This is where something may surprise us.
I wanted to play with the codes of the genre, create a show. Don’t be alone in the speech, but create an emotion. And this emotion of cinema always has to do with childhood. We remember the first films we saw, we remember the places, the forest of Snow White for example, and for me some shots of Hitchcock. A close-up of a hand, a door closing. Cinema has everything to do with childhood, with its emotions and fears.