Film: In the House (***)
Director: Francois Ozon
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner
(Queens Film Theatre on 26th March 2013)
AFTER the light, deft comedic touch of his last film, Potiche (2010), Francois Ozon returns to darker fare with In the House, a film that explores the themes Ozon so richly mined in his accomplished 2003 thriller, Swimming Pool.
In the House tells the story of a school literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), who becomes increasingly obsessed with the voyeuristic writing of one of his pupils, Claude (Ernst Umhauer). Luchini, uniting once more with Ozon, puts in a superb performance as Germain, particularly in the scenes he shares with Kristin Scott Thomas who plays Germain’s wife, Jeanne. The scenes between the two evoke the intellectual banter and domestic angst of a couple in any number of Woody Allen movies and provide comedic relief from the uncomfortably latent sexual gaze of both Claude and the camera.
The couple become fascinated with the lives of the Artole family, whose house Claude has invaded under the subterfuge of tutoring their son Rapha in math. They become hooked on Claude’s literature assignments for class, in which he reveals the inner workings of the Artole household and psychoanalyses each member of the family, ominously ending each ‘to be continued’. More worrying though is his growing obsession with Esther, the matriarch of the family.
Ozon weaves in and out of Claude’s fiction seamlessly, leaving the audience as unsure of what is real and what is Claude’s invention as Germain is. Scenes often unfold one way and then another as Claude re-writes them. It’s a familiar technique employed in many mainstream films, recently most prominently associated with the screenplays of Charlie Kaufman. Ozon has fun redrawing the line between reality and fiction, employing a playful touch. Germain even begins to appear from nowhere in the Artole household scenes, completely shattering reality and continuity. The film maintains an edge though and never quite steps across the boundary into out-and-out comedy.
Humanity’s obsession with story and how it can both unlock and mask our dreams and fantasies is clearly a subject that fascinates Ozon and cinema is the ideal medium to explore such subjects given its almost dreamlike form and how it has developed to become a mirror for our desires. However, Swimming Pool is a much more concise and potent exploration of these themes than In the House, which faulters in a protracted last act.
It’s a shame as Ozon danced so gracefully between comedy and darkness and reality and fiction for the opening two-thirds of the film, before his high wire act came tumbling down to earth. While Germain is an intriguing character brought to life with complexity by Luchini, Claude is never much more than a cipher for our own darkest desires and seems unrealistic and rather too devoid of humanity to make a sympathetic protagonist.
The film’s playful deconstruction of melodrama with its ‘story within a story’ of the Artoles’ family life brings an increasingly uneven tone to the film as it wears on, with In the House turning into the very thing that it has been parodying as its plot turns soap opera. The result is there is little dramatic impact in the film’s finale with the plot and the last scene’s Rear Window-evoking voyeurism feeling as artificial as the character of Claude.
Review by Richard Davis