The French film is part social commentary, part unabashed soap opera
It’s always nice to see a work of art that values the art of creation – particularly the act of observant writing. Such is the case with In the House, the latest satire-cum-thriller from French auteur François Ozon. Adapting Juan Mayorga’s play, House is a clever and engaging window into the double-edged sword that is potential, as it focuses on both sides: those who have yet to make good on it, and those who never really did.
Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is a bitter high school literature teacher married to his art-dealer wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). (In a highfalutin’ reference, the school is named “Lycee Gustave Flaubert,” named for the author of Madame Bovary, one of the more perfect works of literature in any language.) Germain has nothing but contempt for his pupils, but one lower class student, Claude (a curiously mercurial Ernst Umhauer), takes advantage of Germain’s mundane writing exercises (“How I spent my weekend”) as a vicious attempt at voyeurism, describing the middle-class family of a peer in details both cunning and cutting.
Claude’s innate talent unearths a seemingly buried spark in Germain, who takes Claude in as a means of improving (exploiting?) the young man’s gifts. He encourages Claude to pursue his writing and further infiltrate Rapha’s (Bastien Ughetto) family, fanning the flames of Claude’s obsession with Rapha’s mother, Esther (Emaneulle Seigner), and also echoing last decade’s Swimming Pool. And Germain abets Claude’s pursuit even further, crossing lines he knows better than to cross. Ozon teases us, having Germain refer to those observed by Claude as “fictional characters,” thus establishing a meta tone for the film that cuts down on its ultimate danger and opens the door for amusement and ridicule, even if it posed at a target as easy as the French class system.
House is part social commentary, part unabashed soap opera, and the fun comes in Ozon’s ability to push both subgenres to the fullest while simultaneously entwining the tenets therein. The film is an indictment of our modern-day obsession with tabloid culture, but not a condescending one – Ozon’s technical crew (including cinematographer Jérôme Alméras and editor Laure Gardette) loop us in on the action rather than ever distance us from it. We’re all guilty members of the party; we’re the Kit Kat Klub audience at the end of Cabaret rather than the shut-out Kay Corleone at the culmination of the first Godfather.
Ozon, whether knowingly or not, also invokes other recent films ranging from Adaptation to Atonement in its look at the writer as master, God-like manipulator. Both Germain, and especially Claude, learn how to pull strings in their storytelling as a way of appealing to their audience. And Ozon also deliberately evokes other movies, especially Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers from the 1950s, aided by a pitch-perfect performance from Luchini and a tongue-in-cheek one from Scott Thomas. who support Ozon’s premise, Umhauer, too, is perfect as the poker-faced youngster pulling the strings. Of course, it’s inevitable that the director eventually adopts all the characteristics of his storytelling leads (and somewhat cripples House with an off-course ending). Do these characters sometimes feel like puppets, engineered to follow a path of Ozon’s own design? Sure they do. But their puppet master is just having some fun here. Let him.
In the House is playing at Landmark Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
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