In the House
"In the House" is Francois Ozon in top form. The prolific French director turns out some forgettable fare along the way, but the faithful know not to write him off because he always comes back with something that packs a punch. Such is the case with his new brooding drama, which has drawn considerable praise, including the Fipresci award at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Ozon has an affinity for sullen, ill-at-ease characters, and the teenage protagonist of this film continues on in that tradition. Claude (Ernst Umhauer) has an impenetrable quality. He is quite self-assured and composed for a seeming loner. We wonder what is driving him as he delves deeper and deeper into his infatuation with what he perceives as the perfect family of his classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto).
It all begins with a mundane assignment from his writing teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a bitter, failed writer sustaining himself by arrogating to his students. Just when he is venting to his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), about the endless inanity of his pupils’ output, he comes across Claude’s narrative about snaking his way into his classmate’s home and observing their middle class rituals. Husband and wife are instantly intrigued, and a dangerous fascination is born.
As we learn in the film’s opening, the private school has mandated uniforms this year in order to make less apparent the economic disparity among students; so, it is impossible to know that Claude comes from a broken home. He looks more like a blue blood than his classmates, but maybe that’s beside the point.
He is a well mannered, albeit off-kilter, young man who excels at mathematics. He is a neophyte as a writer, and, as we later learn, he is not interested in writing about anything other than the Artole clan. His writing, for which he has a natural aptitude, is really just a result of his morbidity-tinged curiosity about how the other side lives. It reads like an observation journal at times, though it becomes increasingly sardonic and dark.
This is an interactive sort of writing. Claude ingratiates himself in the idyllic Artole home, at first simply by tutoring Rapha, whom he describes as his "ordinary, affable friend who is clueless at math"; then he becomes more intimate bit by coldly-calculated bit, eventually enacting lusty designs on Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), the mother/wife. We never see Claude’s home life, but we understand from his narration, his writing and from the framing of the story that, to him, this is a realm oozing with convention and comfort that he has never known.
He eagerly hands his writings over to Germain, who critiques with the eagerness of an artist preparing his protégé for greatness. Just as the journey becomes increasingly risky and morally ambiguous for Claude, Germain is drawn in much deeper than a teacher should be, staying after class to encourage Claude’s sinister efforts and abetting him in unorthodox ways.
Jeanne, disgruntled with her job at an art gallery that sells "art for perverts," is also an easy subject to rouse to obsession. Disappointing lives beget unhealthy obsessions. Commonly in actuality, addictions like porn or gambling serve this destructive function. For Ozon’s crazed characters it is the chance to prey (virtually, voyeuristically, or actually) upon a family seething with normalcy.
Jeanne points out at one point that Claude’s writing is becoming "more snarky and disdainful." After all, he describes Esther as "the most bored woman in the world," noting that her "intoxicating scent of middle class woman fills the room." It seems he wants to destroy them more than join them, but we are never certain precisely what deep sentiments are driving him.
Germain criticizes him for allowing his snarky tone to reach parodic dimensions, though Claude insists he is just writing what he sees. Germain’s hypocrisy is revealed when, after having instructed Claude to see past the ugliness and explore the characters properly, he lashes out at him for taking tenderly to Esther.
Through Germain’s character, the story, adapted from a play by Juan Mayorga, gets at the ambivalences and indulgences of being a writer -- the self-service, invasiveness, need for deceit and need for ways of assuring oneself of one’s benevolence in the face of evidence to the contrary.
One of the most important and pleasurable aspects of the film is its blurring of reality and fantasy, and it’s not the first time Ozon has touched on the challenges of the writing life and the role of fantasy. In "Swimming Pool," Charlotte Rampling plays an author who retreats into her mind in a rather perplexing manner. Here, tension is created around which events from the Artole house are true and which are creations of Claude’s dark mind.
Also, this is unmistakably a gay vision. Whereas in "Sitcom" Ozon enacted pitch black comedy to deconstruct the wild dysfunctions of the family, here it is a bit more subtle. Still, certain absurdities are encountered head on, and there are explicitly gay moments and accusations along the way, as in Jeanne’s notion that her husband’s investment in Claude is indicative of sexual interest.
Ozon is at his best when he is eliciting squirms at the unsightliness of conventional lives and the fragility at their core. This one won’t be easily shaken off.