In the House (French: Dans la maison), 2012.
Directed by François Ozon.
Starring Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer and Kristin Scott Thomas.
A literature teacher becomes obsessed with one of his students’ strange writing assignments.
At first, In the House feels as though it’ll be one of those macrocosm of society films. It opens with a school’s headteacher declaring pupils will now wear uniform to cover over the student body’s ethnic diversity. France did something similar not so long ago with the banning of clothing covering the face. A man eats a croissant. Everything seems to mean something larger, but then the film gazes inwards like as darkly as a collapsing star.
The man eating a croissant is Mr Germain (Fabrice Luchini). He teaches literature at the school. He’s pessimistic, despondent, bitter at never becoming a successful writer himself. His students don’t care either. They’re a never-ending stream of Es and Ds. Then comes a B+.
It’s for Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), one of Germain’s 16-year-old pupils. The assignment was simply to write about their weekend, but Claude had crafted a descriptive, voyeuristic look into the house of his ‘friend’, Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto). Germain reads the piece aloud to his wife, Jeanne (Kristen Scott Thomas). Although the scene is shot as the Germains in a room, Claude’s words are like radio, painting a story in your mind, ending with the unresolved ‘To be continued.’ Germain’s interest is piqued.
Through various writing assignments, Claude continues his slow infiltration into Rapha’s house and family, which we henceforth see acted out in full. His own motives are frequently mentioned – Claude’s mother left him when he was nine, his father is disabled – but never seem fully sincere. He’s too cold, too without humanity, and eventually his obsession becomes malign.
After a while, scenes from Claude’s story blend spatially with Germain’s own life. A sequence of Claude watching Rapha’s parents in bed cuts to Germain and Jeanne reading the very same sequence aloud in their own bed. Lines are repeated, too, echoed between the film’s fiction and reality, making it increasingly difficult to tell the two apart.
These moments are very subtly structured in their reflexivity. The immensely complex metatheatre at work beneath the plot is shrouded by a cast of engaging characters and their various conflicts. Germain and Jeanne discuss the ethical dilemmas of Claude’s experiment, for instance, while they sit in the cinema beneath a flickering projector. They’re looking out at us, the true spectators. Our position is mirrored.
The focus on voyeurism – not just in the main plot, but through constantly presented pieces of art, sculpture, visual painting (scenes built up in your mind’s eye through narration [sound familiar]) and movies – becomes almost ludicrous. Yet it remains hidden in plain sight. Essentially, we are watching Germain watch Claude watch the Raphas. Three degrees of separation. Each step further back is one more into self-awareness. We’re watching characters suffer for our own enjoyment. Germain isn’t just our protagonist. He’s our reflection.
An element of sadism is laid bare. Just like the Greek Gods would toy with mortals for their own amusement, so do we with our fictional counterparts. The film is a superb mediation on this, wrapped up in an engrossing family thriller.
You could even argue that it’s main flaw, that it lacked a strong ending, is another metaphysical exercise, as Claude himself struggled to find a conclusion to his story. That might be too generous a reading, but still, a marvelous piece of work.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★