There is definitely someone going crazy in THE ONES BELOW, and the wonderful thing about this astringent tale of mystery and suspense is that we have few doubts about who it is. The key word is few. Two couples who have layers, which may or may not be camouflage, experience tragedy, resentment, joy, and childbirth, as baby-fever and the terrors of parenthood coalesce into a genuinely unnerving examination of the tenuous grasp any of us have on sanity, and of the consequences brought about by the enforced intimacy of city living.
The couples could not be more different. Kate and Justin (Clémence Poésy and Stephen Campbell Moore) are the essence of young love with a baby on the way. Bantering, flirting, and dancing through life in a comfortable flat and rewarding careers. Into their lives, or rather the flat downstairs, come Theresa and Jon (Laura Birn and David Morrissey), also expecting a child. They do not banter. They do not flirt. There is a palpable heat to their relationship, but there is something just a little off about both of them. Theresa is a little too anxious to please, Jon is foreboding in manner, and both of them have mild boundary issues. Even the way that they transform the shambles of a shared garden into a regimented showplace is odd. At a welcome dinner thrown by Kate and Justin, Jon goes beyond polite interest in asking why his hosts waited 10 years to start a family, while Theresa adds that Jon left his very beautiful first wife because she was barren, and that she, Theresa, didn’t have a reason for living until she became pregnant. When questioned about it by the new couple, and the hosts respond that they had no trouble conceiving, is there hint of resentment, or even something darker, when the guests say that it took them seven years? And why is it so off-putting, beyond hygiene, that the guests insist on imposing their own house rules by removing their shoes, as they do in their own flat, when assured by their hosts that there is no need?
When that ci-mentioned tragedy occurs, things are said, apologies are proffered, and accepted, but the atmosphere remains charged between the couples. A situation intensified by a wonky alarm system that keeps the new parents and their baby up all night on top of the usual stresses of parenting. Lack of sleep, a cold mother (Deborah Findlay) who needs prompting to shower the attention on her that the downstairs neighbors do with fulsome insistence, and post-partum blues explain a few of Kate’s questionable decisions about Theresa, and the growing suspicions Justin has about his wife’s metal stability.
This is a film of subtle subtext. With tousled hair and wide eyes that watch the world with caution,
Kate sees more than her increasingly alramed husband when it comes to the neighbors, but does she understand, catching clues that can be interpreted depending on the context Kate, or we, give them. Theresa can’t do enough to help Kate, but there is a flintiness to the thoughtfulness that may be her Scandinavian reserve. Or not. Jon’s attempts at geniality fall short. Is it a personal inability to connect emotionally, or the symptom of something pathological?
For a film flooded with soft light and pale colors, the sinister mood of suspense of THE ONES BELOW is overwhelming, making even the varied placement of the chic footwear outside the downstairs flat’s door unnerving. Trying to figure out the extent, or even existence, of a cat-and-mouse game is mesmerizing. The tension of mixed signals, prejudiced perceptions, and the raw ferocity of thwarted expectation grows at a slow but inexorable pace until by the end, we can’t be sure of anything in this literate and pulse-pounding hall of mirrors. And it’s glorious.