In “The House,” stop-motion animation adds a dreamlike element to three stories, which span centuries, moods and four different directors. They are connected only by their setting: the titular house, which ranges from a place of terror to a prized possession. The film portrays the universal and unalterable desire for a home that withstands a changing world, and beyond that, it depicts the ways we relate not only to the idea of home, but to a house itself.
The film’s first part, directed by Emma De Swaef (“This Magnificent Cake!”) and Marc James Roels (“This Magnificent Cake!”), takes place in the 1800s and leans the most toward horror. After 8-year-old Mabel (Mia Goth, “Suspiria”) and her parents (Matthew Goode, “The Imitation Game” and Claudie Blakley, “Pride and Prejudice”) move into the newly-built house, the parents become infatuated with their new, affluent lifestyle while Mabel is left to care for her baby sister and navigate the house, which she quickly detests. The house itself changes — on one day the stairs are gone, on another Mabel continuously gets lost in hallways that have shifted position — the work of the mysterious architect who demands no payment but “creative satisfaction.” It also changes her parents. In scenes more disturbing than might be expected from animation, Mabel finds her mother bent over a sewing machine, face hidden and unresponsive as she feeds an endless train of fabric under the hammering needle. Her father begins burning the furniture from their old house.
Ill-intentioned architect aside, it is a haunting story of two people corrupted by materialism. They lose themselves and their home by giving too much of themselves to the house. They give up their old furniture and trade their clothing for regal outfits, as demanded by the architect. The animation allows the creators to blur the line between metaphor and reality as the parents are subsumed by the house. Mabel exists to remind the audience of the simple but powerfully-delivered message: family is a part of what makes a home.
This is a theme that runs through all three stories. After Mabel’s story concludes, the remaining loose ends — why did the architect do this? Where would Mabel go from here? — are swept under the rug and we fast-forward some 200 years to a present-day version of the house. A property developer (Jarvis Cocker, “Fantastic Mr. Fox”), depicted as a rat, renovates and holds a showing for the house. His only two potential buyers are strange, requesting to sleep and bathe in the house and refusing to leave. The second part, directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr (“The Burden”) is tonally upbeat but retrospectively devastating. The developer appears confident and happy at first, if a bit unlucky. He dances around the kitchen when the house is finished and makes a phone call to someone he calls “darling,” promising a tropical vacation. But as the story goes on, his loneliness becomes evident. After one of the funniest and saddest scenes in the film, in which he is confronted by police on account of a plot point I won’t spoil, we see him in a different light. He lacks connection and social understanding. He is desperate and alone in a house that he doesn’t even own.
The ending is strikingly similar to that of Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” disturbing in the ambiguity of its intended reaction. We don’t know whether to despair over our unrecognizable protagonist or consider it a happy ending where family and home are found, albeit in questionable places.
The film’s third part, directed by Paloma Baeza (“Poles Apart”), opens on a lake in gorgeous, rosy-hued sanctity. Tree branches protruding from the water’s surface and the little island on which the house sits show us that this is not a lake, but the aftermath of a flood. Continuing the themes of renovation, found family and animal protagonists, we find a cat (because apparently, I can’t get away from animated cats now) named Rosa (Susan Wokoma, “Enola Holmes”), at an unspecified time in the future, planning to restore the house and becoming angry with her two remaining tenants who have no money to pay her. Elias (Will Sharpe, “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain”), the young man who wishes to be her friend, pays her with fish. Jen (Helena Bonham Carter, “Enola Holmes”), the woman who spends her time dancing to spiritual music and “gave up on time years ago,” pays her with obsidian crystals. The rest of the tenants left due to flooding, and Rosa is fed up with having too little money to make the house what she has long dreamed it could be. Where the rat in the previous story felt little connection to the house, Rosa’s deep-rooted love and commitment to it is the driving force in the third part.
Rosa’s story again leans into the “home is with the people you care about” message, but as it concludes, we can’t escape the feeling that the joyous characters and mystical, animated water and sky are hiding something. The film, particularly Rosa’s story, presents human connection not just as necessary for feeling at home in the world but as a distraction from a larger disconnection. The found families of the first and second parts do not comprise characters the protagonists are especially close to, but whom they cling to for lack of another option. We know that Rosa once had other tenants, but all we see around the house is water and mist. Those people (cats? beings?) might as well not exist. The two remaining tenants are not a cozy family she finds within a bustling world of connection, but her last chance to avoid abandonment. This feeling of finding connection out of desire but also of necessity — that if we don’t hold fast to someone, we will be confronted by a fragmented world without a perfect place for us — is what lingers long after the credits roll.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.