I was pretty excited for this one. Emma de Swaef, Marc Roels, and Niki Lindroth von Bahr are doing the most interesting work in narrative stop-motion animation today, and while the bizarre nature of that work probably precludes it from attracting much more than a cult following, having some Netflix money thrown at it hopefully bodes well for its sustainability.
The House’s first segment, a fable about a 19th century family selling its soul, sees de Swaef and Roels taking on perhaps their most accessible narrative yet, but their signature negative energy remains as intoxicating as ever. The painterly environments they create for their pudgy felted puppets are gorgeous but nevertheless thick with oppressive atmosphere; it’s never a question of whether things will go badly, but of how they’ll go badly. In this case, it all unravels for our protagonists a bit too quickly, and I would have liked to see this segment stretch its legs more, but that’s mainly a testament to the mysterious air of its titular house. As the labyrinthine structure’s diabolical architect endlessly reinvents it, I can’t help wondering what corridors were left unexplored, and how they might have further corrupted their occupants.
In the second segment, I was a little surprised to see something of a departure from Niki Lindroth von Barr’s deadpan style. Her energetic main character, a debt-ridden real estate developer voiced by Jarvis Cocker, is the most, well, animated character I’ve seen her create, as well as the most developed. But it soon becomes apparent that he’s really just a visitor to her stilted world, and not one warmly welcomed by its denizens. As he struggles to renovate and sell a modern-day version of the same accursed house from the first segment, von Bahr’s knack for detail really shines, from the disposable modernism of the renovation’s decor to the elaborate Busby Berkeley-esque insect dance sequence, all in service of a steady downward spiral culminating in the darkest images of the anthology.
The third segment, directed by Paloma Baeza, stays in surreal territory but feels incongruous with the others. The house is now home to a frustrated landlady with flaky tenants, and beset by encroaching floodwaters that seem to echo the grim fatalism of the previous segments. But the dreamy optimism of its visual style proves to be unironic, and while I don’t think ending this anthology on a hopeful note is a nonstarter, this segment arrives at a sentimental tone that just doesn’t fit.
Ultimately, The House’s three segments share not only the house, but the idea that to make a home is to confront one’s own identity. Does our dwelling reflect who we are or who we wish we could be?