Stop-Motion Strangeness – The House (2022)

In the three weeks since its debut airing on Netflix, the stop-motion animated anthology The House (2022) has generated a huge amount of buzz and an outpouring of positive responses. The exact nature of those responses, however, has left me somewhat puzzled. “Screw conventional storytelling” one reviewer gleefully cries – and yet all of the storytelling techniques on display are well established in short fiction (both literary and cinematic). The vast majority of viewers take it for granted that all three stories take place in the same house – which, to be fair, is also what animation house Nexus Studios would have you believe – and yet the worlds of the three stories are completely incompatible. There’s even one of those annoying “the ending(s) explained” articles whose existence so frustrates me – have we really gotten to the point where we assume that most of the audience for any given movie, no matter how straightforward, are incapable of understanding what it’s about? Ahem. Anyway. Before I stray too far from the work itself, perhaps I’d better circle back and take a look through each of the three stories.

I – And heard within, a lie is spun

The first (and in my opinion the best) of the three stories is set in what appears to be the Victorian era and tells the origin story of the titular house. Mabel (Mia Goth) lives in a small country house with her father Raymond (Matthew Goode of Downton Abbey), mother Penelope (Cranford‘s Claudie Blakley) and baby sister Isobel. They’re not particularly well off, but they’re content. Or they would be if not for Raymond’s wealthy relatives, who periodically descend upon the family to chastise them for their lack of success and generally criticise every last little detail. After one such tyrannical visit, Raymond gets plastered and stumbles off into the woods. Whilst relieving himself against a tree, Raymond is interrupted by the appearance of a mysterious carriage which glows with an unearthly light. The gentlemanly occupant (Barnaby Pilling) beckons him closer and offers him a deal.

Such an encounter traditionally indicates a visitation from either Faerie or Hell – and, as is the way with such bargains, if an offer seems too good to be true, you should probably back away slowly and politely decline. The next morning sees Mr. Thomas (Mark Heap) arriving at the house to formally conclude the deal on behalf of his employer. The terms are simple. His master, the architect Van Schoonbeek, has come into possession of the land surrounding their house. He has offered to build them a new house just behind their own – a house which is he is prepared to give them for free. All they have to do is give up their old house and move into the new one.

At first all seems well. The house is magnificent and they don’t even have to prepare their own meals – everything is done for them by unseen servants. They’re a little disconcerted at having to leave all of their belongings in a disused basement… but the architect is very particular about his work and has fitted the house with all of the aesthetically appropriate fixtures, so it would seem churlish to complain. Events take a more worrying turn when Mabel wakes the next morning to discover that the stairs connecting the rest of the house to the entry hall have disappeared! Mr. Thomas tells her not to worry – the architect is simply a perfectionist and is continuing to refine his work – but as Mabel makes her way through the house, she keeps encountering sinister blank-faced workmen performing ill-defined tasks who immediately cease their work and stare at her until she’s moved on. As time wears on and their surroundings continue to change on a daily basis, Raymond and Penelope gradually lose their self-determination and become integrated into their surroundings, leaving Mabel and her sister ever more desperate to find a way to leave the house.

This opening instalment is the work of Belgian animators Emma de Swaef & Marc James Roels, whose love of puppetry led them to transition into the world of stop-motion animation. Their medium of preference is wool, which provides an interesting texture to their characters’ large pale faces. Their interior design choices and careful selection of camera angles work together to create an impression of an impossibly large structure whose labyrinthine interiors could not possibly fit within the exterior dimensions, and aspects of the décor begin to verge on the surreal as the architect’s adjustments continue to unfold.

Despite having been in the industry for less than 10 years, Mia Goth has already worked with a number of notable filmmakers – her first role was in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013) and she has since worked with internationally respected directors such as Luca Guadagnino (Suspiria, 2018) and Claire Denis (High Life, 2018). Her Mabel is convincingly childlike with appropriate levels of nuance and she is more than capable of carrying the narrative on her shoulders. My favourite among the supporting cast was Mark Heap. Although on one level he will always be the disturbed painter Brian from Spaced (1999-2001) to me, his Mr. Thomas takes an entertaining journey from pseudo-sinister to clearly-out-of-his-depth as he finds himself subsumed within his employer’s design.

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

The second story shifts to the present day and a world populated by anthropomorphic rats. This time around the focal character is an unnamed property developer played by Jarvis Cocker – a name instantly recognisable to fans of the 1990s Britpop scene as the founder and lead singer of Pulp (1978-2002, 2011-2013). Due to the vagaries of the economy, the Developer is attempting to refurbish the house by himself in readiness for an upcoming property viewing, interspersed with a series of over-confident telephone calls to some unidentified person about their pending holiday in the Maldives – although reading between the lines of their conversation creates the impression that whatever the relationship between the two, it’s nowhere near as healthy as he believes it to be.

It will likely come as no surprise that the renovations do not proceed smoothly. His attempts to fix the rotisserie oven unearth an infestation of “fur beetles” which quickly gets out of hand and begins to dominate his dreams. On the day of the viewing he receives the wrong order of home-delivered groceries and is forced to cater what is supposed to be a high class event of hand-picked guests with canapés composed of potato chips and cheap biscuits. Shattered by the unmitigated disaster of an evening, a dim ray of hope appears in the form of a strangely shaped Odd Couple (veteran Swedish actors Yvonne Lombard & Sven Wollter) who are “extremely interested” in the house. Although visiting hours are long over, the Developer gives them a guided tour, culminating with the master bedroom – at which point the couple bid him a good night and settle down to sleep. Although this behaviour does set off alarm bells in the Developer’s head, he’s too exhausted by the day’s events to kick up a fuss and goes to sleep on the living room floor, clinging to the lifeline offered by their “interest”.

As the days progress the Odd Couple become more and more firmly ensconced in the house while the Developer finds himself constantly busy dealing with a resurgence in the fur beetle infestation. Attempting to enlist the police (Tommy Hibbits & Ayesha Antoine) to eject his unwanted guests, he’s taken aback when the officers who arrive turn out to have been sent by the person he’s been telephoning. As his bad dreams escalate into outright hallucinations and the strangely bulging bodies of the Odd Couple begin more and more to resemble bugs, the Developer’s life spirals further out of control with an inevitable downward trajectory. Although Jarvis Cocker isn’t exactly known as an actor, he acquits himself here in fine form, effortlessly bringing the viewer with him on his descent from desperation to despair.

I instantly recognised the style of Swedish animator Niki Lindroth von Bahr from her previous short film Something to Remember [Något att minnas] (2019), which I reviewed previously as part of the 2020 MIFF animation showcase. Her animation work characteristically juxtaposes anthropomorphic animal puppets with mundane human environments infused with a subtle menace, which is right on target for what this middle chapter demands of her. Outside of the world of animation, von Bahr has a separate career as a costume designer, providing the ritualistic outfits seen in the music videos of Fever Ray’s If I Had a Heart (2008) and Stranger Than Kindness (2009) as well as designing the costumes for David Bowie’s magnificent swansong Blackstar (2015).

III – Listen again and seek the sun

The final chapter takes us to an indeterminate near future of anthropomorphic cats in which the sea levels have risen sufficiently to flood Great Britain, leaving only a few lone houses to poke their upper extremities above water. Rosa (Susan Wokoma) is the house’s landlord, persisting in a bloodyminded fashion with her attempts at renovating the house for future tenants despite the clear futility of her actions. Sharing the property with her are Elias (Will Sharpe) – a shy fisherman with a hidden artistic propensity – and hopeless hippie Jen (Helena Bonham Carter), who blithely wafts her way through life oblivious to Rosa’s attempts to drag her back to “reality”. Rosa persists in pestering her tenants for rent on a monthly basis, despite the clear evidence that there is no way for any of them to get their hands on money – money which must surely have lost any value in the world in which they live.

Rosa is less than impressed by the arrival of a new tenant, Jen’s “spirit partner” Cosmos (Paul Kaye) – a new age traveller with all the pseudo-authority of a habitual scrounger masquerading as a guru. Infuriated by the easy way in which her tenants take to him, she is about to kick him out when she learns that he’s a skilled craftsman who could help her to repair the house. Instructing him to begin with the upper-storey floorboards, her newfound bliss is shattered when her inspection of the day’s work reveals that rather than repair the floor, he has decided to repurpose the boards as part of the foundation of a boat he’s begun to build for Elias. Rosa becomes increasingly frustrated as Cosmos’ influence appears to hold sway over her companions and while threatening to take away her residence from beneath her – but the story diverges in tone from the previous two chapters, leading a more hopeful resolution than the earlier stories might have led the viewer to expect.

This concluding segment was directed by Paloma Baeza, an English actress who quit the profession after finally gaining admittance to the National Film and Television School’s animation program – a notoriously picky establishment which only accepts 8 students per year. After her graduation piece Poles Apart (2017) won the 2018 BAFTA award for Best Animated Short Film, she began work on a still-in-progress feature-length CGI/live-action film titled The Toymaker’s Secret, written by her husband Alex Garland. There’s a clear line of progression in her style between Poles Apart and The House. While was a cartoonish aspect to the ursine characters in her earlier project, the cats seen here are more fully realised in all aspects – the crafting of each figure, the individualised body language which plays such an important part in making each character a distinct individual with their own interior life, and overall a more polished range of movement and design.

I’m mainly familiar with Susan Wokoma from her role as an agoraphobic cosplay designer in the SF comedy series Truth Seekers (2020), a performance which showed glimmers of the general frustration with humanity she allows to dominate here. Will Sharpe is fine, but his (appropriately) subdued performance has no hope of competing with Helena Bonham Carter and Paul Kaye, who slide effortlessly into their scene-stealing flowerchild roles.

The” House?

Although animation house Nexus Studios oversaw the commissioning of the various animators whose work makes up the visual component of The House, the writer behind all three scenarios is celebrated Irish playwright Enda Walsh. Working primarily for the stage, two of his plays have been adapted to film – Kirsty Sheridan’s Disco Pigs (2001) and Ring-director Nakata Hideo’s Chatroom (2010). Walsh also had the good fortune to work with David Bowie, writing the book for his stage musical Lazarus (2015), a new adaptation of the 1963 source material for Bowie’s most famous film role in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Although I haven’t been able to determine whether it was Walsh or the animation studio who first conceived The House, it appears that they were united in the brief that all three of the stories were to be set in the same house. But is that really the case?

Taken purely on a thematic level, I can more or less see where Walsh is coming from. Each of the three stories explores the relationship between a core individual or group of people and the house in which they live – broadening out to consider issues such as the contrast between the concepts of “house” and “home” and the materialistic drives of society which make such a vital possession such a source of contention. To take an overly simplistic view of the three stories, the first could be said to explore the consequences of selling out your happiness and sense of identity for material gain, while the third can be seen as a directive to free yourself from hanging on to possessions which have lost their meaning. The middle chapter is more difficult to pick apart. Is it an exploration of what it means to “own” a house or piece of land? Is it a veiled examination of indigenous people reclaiming their land from the coloniser? Both are possible readings, but other elements of the story could easily be used to argue against these interpretations. Although this section of the film works well on a narrative level, I remain unconvinced that there is any one coherent reading that could satisfyingly be applied to it.

Returning to the actual narrative as presented onscreen, regardless of authorial intent, I believe the only sensible way approach the movie is as three completely separate stories – past, present and future – featuring a house as an important location. This has nothing to do with the switch from human protagonists to anthropomorphic rats to anthropomorphic cats – I’d be quite happy to accept this simply as a stylistic choice made by each of the animation teams. But if the writer intended to create three stories which fit together on a narrative level, then he’s completely failed. At a pinch, I’d be willing to consider that the house in parts 2 and 3 could be the same house – although the state in which the house is left at the end of part 2 left me dubious that it could endure long enough to appear in part 3, and that’s not even considering the failure of any of the surrounding houses to last. But the arcane nature of the house in part 1 – and the general weird fairy tale aura of horror in the story itself – is inconsistent with the house seen in part 2, and is completely incompatible tonally with the cautiously optimistic part 3.

But these complaints have more to do with how The House has been marketed rather than its contents. At the end of the day, what remains are three independent stories with a loose thematic link, each of which doubles as a showcase for their respective animators’ creativity and talent. Each story works well on its own terms and features a strong range of performers providing the voice-over talent. In my opinion the movie starts with the strongest story and ends with the weakest – but my reaction to the final story may have been negatively affected simply because its more hopeful tone felt out of place when compared with what had gone before. (And yes, I recognise the contradiction in going against my own rhetoric by allowing the first two stories to colour my opinion of the third.) I expect that the writer’s intent was to use the final story to revisit the thematic concerns of the first story by providing his protagonists with a means of escape – and while for me this felt forced and false, I suspect that others will be more positively inclined.

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