The House (2022)

Emma de Swaef, Marc James, Roels Niki, Lindroth von Bahr, Paloma Baeza | 1hr 37min

Across three eras of one house’s past, present, and future, a rhyming triplet is formed by their respective chapter titles, taking the form of an old English folk poem.

I – And heard within, a lie is spun

II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won

III – Listen again and seek the sun.

Irish screenwriter Enda Walsh infuses this verse with a dark, mystical ambiguity, hinting at forces in each self-contained story which amass power through deceit and manipulation. As The House teases these individual lines out further, an allegory of whimsical existentialism begins to unfurl in an arresting series of Kafkaesque tales. Bit by bit, this anthology traces the rise of modern consumerism from the class envy it was historically born from, through the image-conscious perfectionism of today’s society, and to its logical end as an apocalyptic, flooded wasteland.

Each chapter is credited to a different director, and yet their creative visions possess an abstract unity, following three sets of characters in the process of moving into, selling, or renovating the titular house, only to be confronted by a collection of outsiders who expose their inner corruption. Like Franz Kafka’s absurdist fables, there is little explanation as to where these disturbing figures come from, nor where they will end up when all is said and done. It is rather the effect they have on these poor, doomed residents which The House chooses to study through its rich metaphors, observing the evils they have welcomed into their home tragically erode their souls.

The first ensemble of characters we follow are a poor family given the opportunity of a lifetime when the inscrutable architect Mr. Van Schoonbeek offers to build them a house free of charge – the only condition being that they leave behind their old home and possessions. Family patriarch Raymond, wife to Penny and father of Mabel and baby Isobel, falls easily into temptation, compelled by his jealousy towards rich, condescending relatives. The sudden manifestation of his dreams in his new abode quickly descends into psychological horror though, drawing comparisons to The Shining in its imposing symmetrical patterns, maze-like interiors, and unsettling strangers lurking in unused rooms.

There is no questioning who makes the food or turns on the fancy electric lights at night-time, nor do the parents push back against the house’s strange hypnosis, forcing them to keep sewing drapes and fruitlessly try to light the house’s fireplace. Very gradually, an uneasy blurring of the lines between these people and their possessions unfolds, each absorbing the other until Raymond and Penny start wearing the upholstery and become part of the furniture. Mabel and Isobel make it out with their humanity still intact, and yet the generational cycles of toxic consumerism have begun, promising an even bleaker future.

With such precious virtue at stake, the stop-motion animation of needle felt puppets brings a childlike innocence to The House, freeing each director up to experiment with anthropological creatures and perverse body horror. In the close-ups of Part I, the detail of these human characters is extraordinary, as the camera sharply focuses on the thin felt fibres of their skin ruffling with each movement like homemade dolls. In the later chapters where animals take over, the character designs remain equally impressive, especially with entry of the creepy, disproportioned rats in Part II.

“We are extremely interested in this house,” they repeat in raspy, wheezy growls, and for a time the Developer struggling to sell it acquiesces to their odd behaviour out of desperation, letting them take up unofficial residence the very same day of the inspection. He is quite literally a part of modern society’s rat race, trying to get a leg up by creating the image of a perfect home, and yet the meaninglessness of such efforts is revealed as it falls prey to the filthy exploitation of these squatters and their unwelcome relatives. Eventually, even the Developer succumbs to the anarchic madness, reverting to his most primal instincts and mirroring the transformation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. An earlier overhead shot of him curling up within the fur beetle infestation doesn’t look so sickening anymore when compared to the absolute ruin which has now torn the house apart, seeing him succumb to the indulgent ruin of his materialistic dreams.

The warmth of Part I’s green and gold palette and the sleekness of Part II’s blues and greys are all but gone by the time the dirty, pale browns take over in Part III. The formal contrast between each setting in these colour schemes essentially tell their own story of the house’s evolution, while recurring shots connect us to the unchanging layout of stairwells and rooms across its lifetime. In this way, The House may even be described as an epic of sorts, covering a huge expanse of time in which the only constant character is that large, hulking construction which promises its inhabitants perfect material lives.

As Part III rolls around, it becomes clear that the squalid mess of Part II’s ending has taken over the world. The house has at some point become a block of studio apartments, sitting on an island in a lonely, flooded city that possesses a barren beauty. Surrounding the building is a light, beige mist creeping through windows, while below we notice crooked powerlines peeking above the surface of the dirty water. We may not notice this chapter’s character subversion right away, as landlord Rosa seems reasonable enough in her attempts to restore the building and secure rental payment from her two flaky tenants. And yet in the context of this apocalyptic society where money means nothing at all, she is the odd one out, believing that people will return to the flats if she were just able to fix them up.

Much like Mr. Van Schoonbeek of Part I and the squatters of Part II, wandering hippie Cosmos sails into the life of our protagonist as a disruptive outsider, though not as a sinister enigma. If anything, he appears frustratingly disconnected from reality, speaking of impractical New Age ideals and tearing up floorboards he needs to build a new boat. In this refreshingly inverted character dynamic, our protagonist has already reached the peak of their self-delusion, and the spell Cosmos casts over Rosa is not one which sinks her further into material obsession, but rather clears her mind to see its futility in a dying world.

With Rosa’s liberation and newfound inspiration to “Listen again and seek the sun,” this final chapter punctuates The House with a far more optimistic ending than those which drew Parts I and II into deep despair. Though disconnected in their narratives, aesthetic, and even character species, each absurdist fable builds on the others to arrive at a broader allegory exposing the lie of humanity’s self-centred, material ambitions. We are animals, The House poetically posits, submitting our minds and bodies to that which brings us immediate gratification. Perhaps only when those pleasures are ripped away from us by means of our own self-destruction can we return to a simpler, wiser, and more fulfilling way of life.

The House is currently streaming on Netflix.


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