In the House: the author, revisited
François Ozon once again puts a writer at the centre of his latest witty and dark exploration of fact and fiction.
François Ozon is a filmmaker with incurably itchy feet. Over a prolific, 25-year career, he’s taken on everything from campy Seventies comedy (Potiche) to slow-burn, cerebral drama (Under the Sand). Nevertheless, some lingering concerns emerge in his otherwise ambling oeuvre. Class and sexual values have been duly interrogated in his films, but he seems most implacably obsessed with the creative process itself, and how it can permeate, enliven and, quite often, derail an otherwise tidy life.
The figure of the writer has been a character Ozon has returned to time and time again. There’s the shrewd Sarah from his breakthrough, 2003 thriller Swimming Pool, a crime novelist who retreats the country to stake new artistic ground only to find herself lured into the very sort of murder mystery she’s grown tired of penning. Or the eponymous romance writer from his 2007, Blighty-set period piece Angel, who wants nothing more than to live the giddy, sumptuous life her heroines enjoy.
By contrast, the character at the centre of In the House is an aging hack rather than a troubled artiste, but one whose humdrum existence breeds an ever more insidious reliance on the fanciful world of fiction.
Germain (played with charming pomposity by Fabrice Luchini) has long since decided to spare the world his generic literary misfires and, as is tradition, has resigned himself to a life of embittered pedagogy. Teaching creative writing to a gaggle of hopeless teens at a swanky comprehensive, he exacts what little pleasure he can from looking down his erudite nose at the little philistines. But while whining to his long-suffering wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), that this year’s class are even worse than the last, he comes across an assignment that shows all the flair and promise he himself could never quite muster.
It’s the work of Claude (Ernst Umhauer, electric) an under-the-radar kind of student with a thousand-yard stare and a strange fixation on the wholesome, picket-fence family life of an affable, well-off classmate. His pithy, vivid prose details his infiltration of the homestead, caustically deriding the blokey patriarch and his wife Esther (Emanuelle Seigner), a décor-obsessed housewife he snidely dubs ‘the most bored woman in the world’.
Taking it upon himself to mould the young talent, Germain urges Claude away from mere caricature and insists that, like his beloved Flaubert, he must explore rather than simply judge his characters. Claude delves deeper, but as the story grows and mutates, the line between fiction and fact becomes increasingly blurred. Germain even begins to appear in the scenes, looking over Claude’s shoulder as they unfurl in the young author’s mind and berating him for the odd bum line or lapse into cliché.
Germain pores over each weekly instalment, blithely ignoring the increasingly sinister undertones, while his neglected wife looks on dumbfounded. On one level, In the House is a pop-philosophical treatise about the intersection between reality and fiction, as well as the tragedy of those who fail to discern between the two, but it remains lighthearted and riotously funny. Cut-aways to Jeanne’s haughty, faux-subversive art gallery full of sex-dolls adorned with the faces of history’s most loathed dictators sees Ozon flaunt his eye for satire, while the zesty script, full of immaculate, dry one-liners, counterweight the story’s darker and more perplexing refrains.
But as Claude’s story heads down some strange avenues, the plot begins to unravel. Constantly led to second-guess all we see, we’re left with more questions than answers as the film screeches to a confounding halt.
With heavy nods to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the final scene sees the teacher and his protégé sit in view of a block of flats, concocting stories, motivations and situations around the people they catch glimpses of through the glass. In much the same way, the competing revisions and interpretations of the story we’ve seen unfurl are left to fester in the mind of the viewer. Never are we allowed to know what exactly happened; a conclusion as fitting as it is patently unsatisfying.
That said, it remains an eminently entertaining revisiting of Ozon’s most intriguing themes that have managed to survive his ever-shortening stylistic attention span. Bolstered by some barnstorming performances, In the House is a real page-turner.
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.
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