In The House (Dans la maison)

France (2012) Dir. François Ozon

Middle aged literature teacher Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini) despairs of the quality of the essays from his students until one submitted by Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer) a quiet pupil with a rare talent, catches his eye.

Germain reads it to his wife, art dealer Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), both captivated by the stylish prose and more importantly the implicit racy content concerning Claude’s weekend at the home of classmate Raphael Artole (Bastien Ughetto). Keen to see who it plays out Germain takes Claude under his wing to encourage his talent but is the story fact or fiction?

Based on the play The Boy in the Last Row by Spanish writer Juan Mayorga, France’s master of the urbane comedy drama François Ozon gives this tale a distinctive Gallic makeover in his own inimitable style.

Known for his bold but oddly appealing mix of genres and international castings, Ozon follows his last film Potiche (which can be seen being viewed on a TV screen in the film’s final shot) with this wry look at the unintentional voyeuristic foibles of a childless middle class couple drawn into the devious mind of a precocious teenage writer in the making while we the audience watch on, playing the role of voyeurs ourselves.

Germain, himself a failed writer, has his curiosity peaked when Claude’s essay on “What I Did At The Weekend” tells of his tutoring Rapha who is failing maths. During a break Claude meets Rapha’s mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner) and his poetic description catches Germain’s attention. With encouragement Claude submits the second instalment and it is clear that he is developing a crush on Esther.

With both he and Jeanne engrossed in the story, Germain gives Claude pointers on writing to help him construct a better story all the while unaware of the story is autobiographical or not. Even when Germain realises this could be real he persists with the lessons, the situation understandably becoming more complicated at every turn.

The cleverness of the story is how everyone is affected by one simple action blurring the lines of sympathy and empathy for the characters as well as making singling out a chief antagonist a difficult task. The characters seem deliberately of a type but Ozon gradually exposes a different side to them to flesh them out while taking the story along a new direction. Rapha’s father Rapha senior (Denis Ménochet) is he basketball loving macho man who has passed on his love of the sport to his son.

He is also the typically ignorant husband to the bored housebound Esther making her a prime target for Claude’s misplaced affections. Claude himself comes from a broken home his mother having long gone, his father seemingly not interested. There is more to Rapha than meets the eye too which complicates matters further but caught in the middle of it all is Germain whose obsession with Claude threatens his marriage to Jeanne, who begins to question his sexual preferences as a result.

It’s not all about this spiralling drama as Ozon injects some levity through Jeanne’s struggling art gallery. Recently bought out by twins Rosalie and Eugénie (an understated cameo from Yolande Moreau) Jeanne is keen to find the right works to display and sell, her first choice are some very provocative works using sexual imagery to make political statement. I will say no more except you’ll never look at Chairman Mao the same again!

But this is not immune from drama as Jeanne’s penchant for high brow and abstract art over more commercial fare is not well received. Elsewhere Ozon satisfies his surreal bent by having Germain pop up in Claude’s telling of his story which clouds the issue as to whether what we are seeing is real of fiction, a clever distraction to keep the ambiguity of the plot alive.

With literature, and the creation of it, being a central theme, noted works are thrown in as reference points for Claude’s education that give subtle hints to the more learned viewer as which direction things might head to next. This may sound a little tacky and blatant but the introductions are congruent but will largely go unnoticed for most people. However one cannot fail to notice the incredible energy boost Germain – and the film – receives as he becomes engrossed in nurturing Claude’s literary talents, providing some lessons for all of us in the process.

Ozon is known for having the cream of the crop of the French acting world at his disposal as well as those from this side of the pond, most notably the enigmatic turn from Charlotte Rampling in his 2003’s drama Swimming Pool (a film which shares may themes with this one). Another Brit who has become an honorary Frenchie is Kristen Scott-Thomas who once again delivers a terrifically incisively sharp essaying as the emotionally tested Jeanne with her usual panache.

As the sensible one of the relationship Scott-Thomas is the perfect foil for the nervy and delusional and excitable Germain, an energetic and immersive performance from Fabrice Luchini whose physical appearance and unassuming facial features suggests he was born for such an easily manipulated figure, yet he has proven to be capable of much more.

In a key supporting role, Emmanuelle Seigner sits someone between Stifler’s mom and the inadvertent victim of the piece with a quite grace but the true revelation is the two young male leads. Newcomer Ernst Umhauer is almost too good as the razor sharp and delightfully divisive Claude, and, if he sticks with it, could be major leading man material in a few years time. Meanwhile, fellow rookie Bastien Ughetto has the face and aptitude for a great comedic career while being capable of hitting a competent dramatic stride.

If Potiche was the film that saw Ozon return to form then In The House delivers the knockout blow to establish his reputation as one of the most interesting and delightfully subversive filmmakers working today to also enter the mainstream.