By Ricky Young
As we join the start of another school year in suburbia, François Ozon opens his film Dans La Maison (In The House) with a clean and crisp montage of modern architectural lines, frosted glass, polished corridors, and crushing normality. In the first staff meeting, Germain (Fabrice Luchini – a shuffling, ill-dentured turtle of a man) learns that even with regards to the students’ dress, uniformity of thought is making a big comeback. A failed novelist and only-mildly-engaged literature teacher, we watch him deflate further than even he thought possible, then waddle off to his first class to set the traditional ‘What I Did This Summer’ paper and wait for the day to be over. His story ended some years ago, we imagine.
Marking his papers at home, however, he finds a surprisingly fruity submission from a new wrong-side-of-the-tracks pupil, Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer – like a fresher James McAvoy, but without that constant worry that his nose is about to drip), detailing his desire to get inside the house of a class-mate, for purposes as yet unknown. The essay ends with ‘To Be Continued’, leaving Germain and his art-dealer wife (Kristen Scott-Thomas – doing that suspicious ‘speaking-French’ thing again) hanging with a mixture of unease and prurience that threatens to spice up their comfortable yet boring existence. If, that is, they choose to let it.
Germain can’t help but become excited by something in Claude’s style (and lack of inhibition), however, and takes him under his wing by giving him special tuition and encouraging him to take his infiltration efforts further. The essays then come thick and fast, and we get to see them played out in front of us – ‘or do we?’, is the film’s main question. Claude makes friends with his class-mate, becomes a part of their home-life, fixates on the hopes and dreams of the family members and tries to get to truly know them. Or so he writes.
As Germain attempts to teach Claude about the demands and requirements of narrative, the scenes we see then melt or solidify depending on who or what are influencing them. Sections get retold and reshown if they’re marked down, or focused upon if liked, but we’re never sure how much of Claude’s essays are the truth, or how far he’s pushing his new-found fictional prowess.
Even Germain’s world bends to Claude’s storytelling, as he has to struggle with himself to allow it to continue when he knows it could be affecting real people in unexpected and perhaps dangerous ways – he is in loco parentis, after all – but when he decides he can’t bear to have his project end – and along with it, perhaps his last chance at shaping some real talent – puts his own livelihood at risk to ensure its continuation.
Ozon keeps this from becoming too overheated by having Germain and his wife provide a real-world commentary on what they think is actually going on in an affable and self-effacing (yet sardonic) manner, with plenty of arthouse-pleasing pokes at the middle-classes. How much they find themselves affected by the blurring of narrative lines (if you want to live your life as a collection of stories, when does a re-write become a lie, anyway? When does the withholding of a plot-point become a betrayal?) provides the bulk of the film’s emotional punch.
In The House started life as a play, and while the quick bursts of meta might have held the adaptation back in the hands of someone less assured, Ozon treats them playfully and for (genuine) laughs. The lush look and sensuous feel also serve to open up the story, and it isn’t until the end you realise what a small, focused film it is. Of course, it isn’t a French festival hit without a section devoted to a teenager’s burgeoning sexuality when faced with a friend’s still-attractive mother, played by a former starlet (Emmanuelle Seigner – here doing some pretty dignified work), but even that’s handled with a grace and sensitivity that’ll surprise.
Not everyone gets a happy ending, as is in the nature of storytelling, but even the losers get to share in the gorgeous final shot. There are stories all around even the most jaded of us, the film tells us, if only you care to look.
In The House is released on 29th March.
With thanks to the Belmont Picturehouse, Aberdeen.
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