Is a house a structure inhabited by us, build for our protection and comfort, designed according to our needs? Or does the house life through us, sucking up our time and energy with constant needs of repair, changing us to fit it, all the time watching us die? The question of who owns whom and the challenge posed by a capitalist culture of status defined by display of wealth are at the heart of Enda Walsh’s amazing animated anthology The House.
The titular building housing a trilogy of terror written by Walsh and directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr as well as Paloma Baeza looms threateningly like a toy shop model for Shirley Jackson’s Hill House. But the connective construction of the Irish playwright’s scary stories is in many ways much more material, not to say: materialist than Jackson’s quintessential haunted house: a metaphorical mansion whose creation, contrivance and contraptions unfold in Emma de Swaef’s and Marc James Roels’ first segment. Playing out like a puppeteering prologue, And Heard Within. A Lie Is Spun, is the most dread-inducing and desolate of the features each of which bears the unique artistic sing nature of its directors.
In a gorgeously gothic 18th century setting, the lower-middle class parents of little Mabel (Mia Goth) are approached by a representative of elusive architect Mr. Van Schoonbeek who offers to build them their a mansion with all amenities. The sole condition is they leave their humble home and personal belongings behind to move in immediately. Father Raymond (Mathew Goode) eagerly accepts, happy to escape the derision of their affluent relatives and mother Penny (Claudie Blakley) is quickly won over by the modern facilities of their new lodgings. The latter not only keep changing but take literal possession of the parents, morphing them into moveables. Meanwhile, Mabel with her baby sister Isobel in tow wanders the narrowing hallways looking to escape this construction of capitalist corruption, haunted by the spectres of faux distinction. With the sisters left alone in a chilly winter night to watch their parent’s pretensions and property burn down, the ice cold conclusion is that the status-driven system will burn out the lower classes who buy into the empty promise of upward mobility, leaving nothing for the next generation.
Whereas the first story built upon the aspirations of capitalism, Niki Lindroth von Bahr‘s second episode zooms in on its maddening modern-day mercantilism Then Lost Is Truth That Can’t Be Won. The house now located on Van Schoonbeek Street – and address speaking both to the success of Van Schoonbeck’s Mephistophelean deal and the historic glorification of economic authorities – has been expensively refurbished for resale by an anthropomorphic rat contractor (Jarvis Cocker). Commercialism’s invasive insatiability pushes him to his monetary and mental limits, leading to a symbolic collapse of civility. As a rodent representative of a time of failed financial schemes, ill-advised investments and unpaid labor, he is forced to reside in the property which is first infested by a chorus line of beetles, then by potential buyers refusing to leave after a disastrous open house event. The Kafkaesque creepiness increases as the squatters begin to transform while authorities ignore the protagonist’s predicament. Stuck in this maddening mouse trap defined by the parameters of property, presentation and prestige, he regresses into an animalistic answer to the capitalist system of ceaseless consumption.
Paloma Baeza’s final chapter Listen Again and Seek The Sun brings another change of atmosphere by taking the domicile and its denizens to a not-so-distant dystopia of dramatically rising sea levels. Above them towers the derelict house, kept as aparthotel by tabby cat Rosa (Susan Wokoma). While her last two tenants, mellow Elias (Will Sharpe) and bohemian Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) are preparing to leave the doomed establishment and urge her to do the same, Rosa is clinging to ridiculous renovation plans. Regardless of its bleak scenario the fantasy fable about the refusal to change even as the ground is breaking away underneath one’s feet and the water is up to one’s neck, offers the most benign character interpretations. Rosa’s dreams of renewal are less motivated by profit than a sentimental desire to both maintain and leave a legacy. Only after almost loosing herself in the serpentine passages of the house that drains her energy as if it was physically holding on to her as it was to the unlucky parents of the first episode, does she realise that her heritage ins’t incorporated by possession but by herself.
The personal price of self-definition by status and obfuscation of individuality by items, the dehumanising demands of a market that doesn’t drive people forward but drives them insane, and ultimately the cataclysmic consequences of humankind’s reluctance to face the failure of their plans draw the strings in Walsh’s eerie puppet show. The foremost flaws of her enchanting exercise meandering between the haunting, hilarious and heartbreaking is the limitation of the middle-class perspective the stories embrace. It’s easy to chastise mercantilism in those who fail to appreciate what the have because they want more (even the first story’s “poor” people are house owners upgrading to a villa). But this modesty message turns more twisted if applied to the have-nots. Ironically, they are suspiciously invisible in a cinematic critique of seeing persons only for what they own.
- OT: The House
- Director: Emma de Swaef, Marc James Roels, Niki Lindroth von Bahr, Paloma Baeza
- Screenplay: Enda Walsh
- Country: UK
- Year: 2022
- Running Time: 97 min.
- Cast: Mia Goth, Claudie Blakley, Matthew Goode, Mark Heap, Miranda Richardson, Stephanie Cole, Jarvis Cocker, Yvonne Lombard, Sven Wollter, Will Sharpe, Paul Kaye, Susan Wokoma, Helena Bonham Carte
- Release date: 14.02.2022
- Image © Netflix