56th BFI London Film Festival Review – In the House (2012)

In the House (French: Dans la maison), 2012.

Directed by François Ozon.
Starring Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Denis Ménochet and Emmanuelle Seigner.

SYNOPSIS:

A sixteen-year-old student befriends a classmate and writes stories about his family, leaving his tutor compelled by his great work. However, the student’s writing leads to a series of events that change everyone’s lives.

There seems to be a postmodern prevalence in films these days to tell a story which is actually about stories. Rango. Seven Psychopaths. The Prestige. All recent (-ish), all great films, and they all to different extents comment on filmmaking and story telling. In the House takes that as its main priority and creates a bonkers story that is confusing and yet makes sense at the same time. It is, not to put it lightly, a master class in storytelling. It’s a story about a story, that uses a story as a framing device.

It all starts when a young student, Claude (Umhauer) starts writing fictional stories about his fellow classmate Rapha (Ughetto). He brings them to his teacher Germain (Luchini) who gives him advice on how to improve them. But eventually Germain gets too involved and the line between reality and story is frequently crossed.

I’m not going to go into story details. Not because I’m afraid I’ll spoil things, but just because I am not entirely sure what happened. It’s not that this movie is hard to follow; it’s just one of those that needs (and deserves) a second viewing. It talks about the best way to perfect a story while giving you a great one to watch and everything that happens seems to happen for a reason.

It’s got some of the classic elements seen in other, varied films over the decades, such as the student actually being the master. Claude gives his teacher the run around from the get go, to the extent that Germain is lured down the rabbit hole and has a compulsion to find out what happened to the characters.

This gives way to humorous moments, such as when Germain’s wife Jeanne (Thomas) meets the parents of the teen being written about and finds out they’re nothing like the stories describe them. It’s this understated, clever humour where the film works best, handing out irony and wit by the handful. One of the ironies being that Germain talks through how to write the perfect ending, which is then followed by the film giving us, the audience, a perfect ending.

If there’d been a misstep at any point, this film would have been regarded widely as too smart for its own good and too arrogant to sit through. The only way it works is because everything inside it works. Avoiding being too dark or snarky about storytelling, and the effect such stories can have on audiences, In the House ends up giving small lessons on life as well as how to go through a narrative. Characters grow and end up changing completely from where they were at the beginning.

Performances, like the film, are understated and funny. Fabrice Luchini plays the role of teacher, lost soul, genius and idiot so well that he successfully anchors the film, while growing up through the guise of Claude is made seamless by Ernst Umhauer. The two main characters are the ones that stand out most, obviously, but everyone else performs remarkably. The relationships in the film aren’t just about chemistry or likeability. They’re also based on feelings of guilt, anger, bitterness, paranoia or just plain old boredom.

The characters themselves are also not up for examination, in that it’s all about the characters growing, making mistakes and being real people. There’s no bad guy, no physical antagonist the hero has to overcome. As Germain says in the film, the writer shouldn’t judge the characters he’s writing, and we as the audience are invited to come in a little and judge how the story’s being written as opposed to rooting for either Claude or Germain.

One thing I must point out is the meandering nature of the plot. Sometimes things get a little slow and you can almost sense the filmmakers themselves got a little lost, producing a film that perhaps has only the one failure of overstaying its welcome in some scenes. It makes up for it in the end, but needs tightening if it’s to keep the audience enthralled one hundred percent of the time (and not just, y’know, ninety eight percent of the time).

Not many of the films of the festival really grabbed me until In the House came along. It’s a revelation, not just among the festival, but also in storytelling. It was all so smooth and well done, that there are elements to it that I only understood subconsciously. Which sounds like utter tripe, but it’s the best way I can put it. Storytelling through images and all that. Give it more than one viewing, if only for the atmosphere and tone built up throughout. But also because of the acting and, as I’ve mentioned countless times above, the story and because it’s about stories.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★

Matt Smith

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