by Bertille de Lestrade
French cynicism would call François Ozon’s filmography a lot of things. Alright, it’s a bit irregular, unexpected, sometimes odd or downright cheezy. I personally find the man bold, incredibly talented, and a genius when it comes to casting and directing his actors, as well as creating unique atmospheres. « He wouldn’t call himself a great film maker, actor Fabrice Luchini said in a interview, he’s a man who wants to make films ». And he makes them like no one else. Whether he goes for romance, drama or thrillers, Monsieur Ozon has his own ways ; a real fondness for colors and theatricality ( 8 women, Potiche) the gift to tell stories with a poignant sobriety (Time to leave, 5×2) and often the outstanding ability to make his audience uncomfortable. Such was the power of Under the sand, a mysterious tale of love and denial led by a dazzling Charlotte Rampling in 2000. Ozon comes back to a similar genre with the excellent Dans la maison (In the house), adapted from the play El chico de la ultima fila by Juan Mayorga.
The story : Germain, a frustrated literature teacher, starts an unusual school year when reading one of his students’ paper ; young Claude reports with a disturbing tone and a suprising talent having finally been at his classmate Rapha’s to help him study maths. « I wanted to get into his house (…) to be continued » Though a bit reluctant at first, Germain is definitely captivated. Things are soon going to get out of control.
It is particularly enjoyable and relevant to see Fabrice Luchini in the role of a literature master ( a « maestro » as Claude will call him throughout the film) because he’s so well-known for his passionate monologues and his eccentric way with words, so much that Ozon had to make sure he wouldn’t put « too much Luchini » into his character ! Like most teachers do, Germain wants to pass on the taste of literature to his students, but all he ends up facing are « mobile phones and pizzas ». Claude is giving him the golden opportunity to plant the seeds of proper creativity and broach the questions that lie at the very heart of literature. First with an academic approach : what makes a good story ? What’s an interesting perspective ? What kind of narrator does he really want to be ? but little by little indulging in a dangerous frenzy : what’s exciting ? What desires is he driven by ?
Claude slowly infiltrates Rapha’s family, finding ways to bound with his father (well portrayed by Denis Ménochet, who made an international impression in the great intro scene of Inglorious Basterds) and his mother (Emmanuelle Seigner, beautifully playing her part as a naive housewife, a nice change of register for the actress who’s usually cast in darker roles).
He reports to his teacher using a cold, vicious tone, experimenting different writing techniques, manipulating the truth and his characters. His true motive remains mysterious to the viewer and to Germain, who doesn’t even question it that much ; blinded by his literary cravings, he’s oblivious to the wrongness of it all, which brings a funny touch to his character and a cryptic quality to the story. He shares Claude’s papers with his wife Jeanne (the forever great and amazing french-speaker Kristin Scott Thomas) who’s initially very critical of both her husband’s behaviour and Claude’s deranged personnality, but ends up embodying one of the film’s most fascinating developments. Is Jeanne so reasonable, so different from Germain that she appears to be ? As the manager of an unsuccessful art gallery, her desperate need to fill it with something that sells actually mirrors her husband’s quest for a real writer. Her illusions on art and culture are long gone, as underlined by her attempts to warn Germain: « Literature doesn’t teach us anything. That lunatic who killed John Lennon, do you know what book he was found with ? Catcher in the Rye ! Literature didn’t teach him anything ».
The characters’ dynamic is incredibly well staged, as submission and manipulation take turns between student and master, writer and subjects. « The audience is acting too, Luchini explained in an interview, « Ozon makes them play a role, they get to discover things about themselves ». He makes a good point : Who doesn’t want to be back in the house and see what’s going to happen ? This may be the film’s most fascinating dimension : while we live in a society of constant, active voyeurism where people are not only willing but eager to expose themselves through reality TV or social networks, In the house goes back to what voyeurism really is in its most dramatic, exciting form, where the subjects have no knowledge of their being watched, analyzed, talked about. As creepy as it may sound, it’s actually quite refreshing… within a fictional frame, of course. Ozon looks into that very concept of fiction with a lot of subtelty by staging individuals who interact with each other in reality while others only see them as mere characters, following their lives from the coward comfort of their own home, waiting for the next episode as if they were some kind of soap opera. The director is the maestro, interrogating us, the viewers. Along with the characters, right there in their shoes, we’ll come to the conclusion that a story needs a reader, the way a film needs an audience. We’ll be equally threatened by the possibity that someone could stop writing, or the other stop reading.
Where does it all come from, this urge to fill life with good stories and adrenaline, even if they’re not our own ? It seems that the main characters here, an anxious adolescent and an embittered middle-aged man, are driven by a common boredom and the same search for a sense of achievement. Claude is exploring life and its boundaries, somehow both reassured and exhilarated to do so under his teacher’s supervision. Germain sees and seizes the chance of a being reborn through a younger, better version of himself, the writer he could never be. It’s all terribly human and common on paper, isn’t it ? There’s a true normality about this story, symbolized by the house where everything must happen, something we can all recognize and identify with. Ozon made that normality captivating exactly like he intended to, and having us reconnect with that normality when we don’t expect it without being dull for a second, now that’s the real coup de maître.
A rich, clever film that celebrates long known talents and reveals a new one : young Ernst Umhauer in the role of Claude, a strong, spine-chilling performance that got him one of the movie’s 6 nominations at the 2013 Césars. Highly recommended !
In the House screenings at the IFI : http://www.ifi.ie/film/in-the-house/
105mn, in french with subtitles, bien sûr.