Directed by: François Ozon.
Written by: François Ozon based on the play by Juan Mayorga.
Starring: Fabrice Luchini (Germain), Ernst Umhauer (Claude Garcia), Kristin Scott Thomas (Jeanne Germain), Emmanuelle Seigner (Esther Artole), Denis Ménochet (Rapha Artole père), Bastien Ughetto (Rapha Artole fils).
Francois Ozon’s tricky new film In the House sneaks up on you slowly. It reminded me of a Hitchcock film, the way it subtlety enlists you to be complacent to the characters and their actions – to turn the audience into voyeurs – before slowly turning the knife and you realize just how poisoned everything has become. It is the best film Ozon has made in years – perhaps since Swimming Pool back in 2003.
The film stars Fabrice Luchini as Germain, a bored creative writing teacher at a suburban high school in France. He thinks his students are idiots – and when he gives a simple assignment to his class asking them to tell them about their weekend, and one student writes all of two lines “On Saturday, I ate pizza and watch TV. On Sunday, I was tired and did nothing)” – it’s hard to argue with him. But then one student catches his attention – Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). His assignment is brilliant – telling of the time he spent in the house of a classmate, who seemingly has a “perfect family” – unlike Claude’s own. It’s clear Claude has contempt for the classmate, who he perceives as a dolt, for the father, who he thinks is a bore, and dismisses the wife as “smelling like the Middle Class”. He looks down on these people, but he has obvious skill – and Germain takes him under his wing. He even lets his wife, Jeanne (Kristen Scott Thomas) read the stories – and although she thinks the things she writes about this family are awful, she cannot stop reading them. One story arrives after another, and Germain and Jeanne fall under Claude’s spell. How much of what he is writing is fiction, and how much is real? The stories gradually start to focus on the mother – Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), who Claude sees as both a surrogate mother figure and a MILF. Slowly, so slowly that Germain and the audience barely notice, Claude starts asking Germain for things that clearly cross a line – and to keep getting installments of the story, he does.
In the House is a tricky film. It doles out information on a need to know basis, so we can never quite get a handle on Claude. Is what he says about what happens in his friend’s house true? Is what he says about his own home life true? Is he a sociopath, or just a troubled kid? And why, when everyone else seems to hate Germain – even the other teachers – does he zero in on him. It’s to the credit of Ernst Umhauer’s performance that he never really lets us inside. You can never get a read on him, and that makes him fascinating. The rest of the performances are just as good. Fabrice Luchini is in top form as Germain, who seemingly for the first time in years seems actually interested in anything other than himself. His world comes crashing down around him, but he is clueless – so wrapped up in the love of this new talent, he cannot see what is happening around him. Kristen Scott Thomas is also very good – why she’s so much better when she works in French than English, I’ll never know, but she is – as she too gets drawn into Claude’s world, although at least she realizes it. She even finds a sort of kinship with Claude, in the way he’s obviously toying with Germain. And Emmanuelle Seigner is excellent in a tricky role – a role that requires her to change at times scene to scene, because she is only ever seen through the eyes of Claude – and his gaze his constantly shifting.
In the House also has some interesting things to say about the nuclear family. Most often in movies, we get the portrait of the seemingly happy suburban family, which is really built on nothing but appearances and lies – think American Beauty or about 90% of the movies that come out of Sundance in a given year. But In the House is different. The normal family – married parents, one child – may be dull, boring and none too bright, but they really are happy in their little life. Meanwhile the childless couple – Germain and Jeanne – and the child from a broken home – Claude – are all much smarter than the family, but all much more miserable. Ozon seems to have sympathy for these outsiders, even as he punishes them. But it also seems to be saying that the duller you are, the happier you are.
But overall, In the House is really about storytelling – about how a gifted storyteller can slowly suck you into his story, without you even realizing it. Claude is a natural storyteller, able to get people to buy in hook, line and sinker before they know what hit them. So is Francois Ozon.