Friday, July 19, 2013

In the House (Dans la maison)

The films that François Ozon has made in his career have been marked by an eclectic range of wildly divergent styles, but perhaps he is never more interesting than when he is looking at the nature of storytelling itself. His 2003 film Swimming Pool was the story of a writer whose holiday experience seems to mirror the trajectory of her mystery novel, and In the House is a more comedic spin on similar themes. The two central characters in the film are storytellers, one of whom is frustrated by his lack of literary success and the other who is exploring the limits of his talents, and In the House allows us to see the fruits of their unlikely collaboration.

The film is adapted from a Spanish play, but Ozon has moved the action to France, where Germain (Fabrice Luchini) teaches literature at a secondary school. His students are mostly apathetic and he spends his evenings disappointedly marking their mediocre work, but one piece of writing catches his eye. 16 year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer) uses the assignment "What I did on the weekend" to write about his relationship with fellow student Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), describing how he has long desired to see inside their comfortable home and spend time with this apparently perfect family, and how Rapha's invitation to help him with his maths homework gave him the opportunity to do so. Germain reads Claude's composition to his wife Jean (Kristin Scott Thomas), and both characters' curiosity is piqued by Claude's final line, "To be continued..."

That line hooks the viewer just as easily as it hooks Germain and Jean. Ozon gives us Claude's tale in instalments, as the teen insinuates himself ever deeper into this family's lives, becoming besotted by the "middle-class scent" and seductive curves of Rapha's mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). Both Germain and Jean profess discomfort with his revelations, but they do nothing to stop it; in fact, Germain begins encouraging his student. He starts prompting him to develop his characters and themes, to take different stylistic approaches, and to do more to intrigue and excite the reader. Claude responds by telling an increasingly dangerous and salacious story. The previously milquetoast teacher even resorts to stealing a maths exam for his protégé, to ensure that his opportunities for further explorations of the home are not interrupted. Throughout all of this, we're never sure how much of what we see is real, and how much is simply the product of Claude's imagination. Is he really sharing his experiences with us, or are we all the victims of one big con?

Ultimately, that's not the point. Ozon is far more enamoured with the process of setting up his puzzle and playing with audience expectations than he is with answering any questions. In the House allows Ozon to explore themes of voyeurism, class envy and obsession, but above all else it has the feeling of being little more than a crafty and sly exercise in storytelling. The characters that Claude writes about are never fleshed out into figures that are worth taking an interest in as anything other than props in the game, which leaves the film feeling a little hollow. The characters we spend more time with are a shade more interesting thanks to the finely calibrated performances, but the story exerts no real emotional pull; we remain at a slight remove as we watch Germain and Jean get drawn inexorably into Claude's vortex.

There's much to enjoy here, though. Ozon's direction is precise throughout, and he displays unerring judgement in the way he switches between reality and fantasy, even mixing the two modes late in the film when Germain pops up in Claude's scenarios to direct the action. The director is clearly having a lot of fun with his frequent namedropping (Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Pasolini, even Barbara Cartland) and his digs at the pretensions of modern art, as seen in Jean's ludicrous gallery, and an alert audience will likely have a lot of fun too. Whether that sense of joie de vivre will last up to the very end of the film – by which time the director has rather overburdened his narrative with dramatic happenings – is harder to say. In the House is a film that's full of storytellers, but between them they can't quite conjure a satisfying ending.