Director: François Ozon
Writers: François Ozon (screenplay), Juan Mayorga (play)
Stars: Fabrice Luchini, Vincent Schmitt, Ernst Umhauer
Ask yourself. What’s happening In The House? That is, who really knows what’s happening In The House?
“If you can think of life, for a moment, as a large house with a nursery, living and dining rooms, bedrooms, study, and so forth, all unfamiliar and bright, the chapters which follow are, in a way, like looking through the windows of this house. Certain occupants will be glimpsed only briefly. Visitors come and go. At some windows, you may wish to stay longer, but alas. As with any house all within cannot be seen.”
–Preface to James Salter’s memoir, “Burning the Days”
No doubt we have all sat on park benches, looking at a house across the way and wondering about the family who lives there. In the driveway, a man bounces a basketball, his wife waves good-bye to him as she gets in her car and their son hops on his bike, a book bag slung over his shoulder. One could just sit and wonder… or one could figure out a way to enter the house and write a story like Scheherazade warding off death, captivating your audience as if your life depended on it. In the new film by acclaimed French director Francoise Ozon (Swimming Pool, 2003), a sixteen-year old student responds to a writing assignment asking for little more than what he did over the weekend with a cliffhanger story that draws his professor, episode by episode, into an edgy real life drama.
The opening scene of In The House takes place in the austere high-ceiling marble foyer of the prestigious Gustav Flaubert High School, where a professor sits alone – on a different kind of bench – waiting for a meeting. It’s a forbidding, cold atmosphere for a student like Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who doesn’t come from a privileged home. The next scene is of Claude putting on a school uniform that speaks of his enrollment status while masking his troubled emotional background and, unlike clothes of choice, hides personal identity. Claude, a gifted student, embarks on a journey that reveals a talent for entrancing his professor that’s a bit disturbing.
In response to the assignment to describe his weekend, Claude writes about his perceptions of a family — a longed-for “perfect family” of another student in his class, Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto). He volunteers to tutor Rapha out of voyeuristic curiosity about his “perfect family”, but as it turns out, Claude’s writing about Rapha’s home life arouses hope in his teacher, Mr. Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a disgruntled professor known as a dispenser of C’s, D’s and F’s. Mr. Germain’s demeaning attitude toward his students leads him to treat Claude’s writing with disdain. He often dismisses his depictions of the Artole family and pushes for more detail but, as he does, Claude rises to the challenge. Instead of getting ground down by Mr. Germain’s harsh critiques, he asks appreciatively, “Why are you helping me?”
The special mentoring continues as Mr. Germain gets caught up in the drama of Claude’s story. Claude takes his professor’s lessons increasingly to heart and begins to incorporate, in real life and in his writing, the scenes Mr. Germain wants. The story itself comes alive – in Rapha’s house, in Claude’s writing and Mr. Germain’s mind. Mr. Germain shares Claude’s writing assignments with his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who runs an offbeat art gallery. Claude’s stories spark erotic, slightly comical conversations between the two of them. Together they begin to speculate on what’s truth and what’s sheer imagination. Mrs. Germain believes Claude is reporting real events while her husband sees Claude as an imaginative writer with potential, a young version of himself before he gave up writing to become a professor. Soon husband and wife are caught up in Claude’s story; as the presence of Claude and his story expand into Mr. and Mrs. Germain’s relationship, the film audience is also drawn into the enticing question of what’s real and what’s not.
Claude rapidly evolves from Rapha’s tutor to his best friend, then to a family friend joining extracurricular activities and taking more liberties in order to give Mr. Germain a technically sophisticated story. He discovers x-rays of a spinal column in Rapha Sr.’s desk, spies Rapha’s parents having sex and examines Mrs. Artole’s shoe collection. Mr. Germain’s writing lessons push Claude to go further into his desires for inclusion in the family and relations with Rapha’s mother, Esther. He pushes beyond the limits of protocol into perilous territory when he develops the particularities of character identity and, at least theoretically, stirs up emotional reactions in the Artole family.
As fabrication brings truth forward, the film pulls the audience in. We see Mr. Germain appear in the Artole home, enacting his critiques of Claude’s writing as if correcting his work then and there. What’s real and what’s being expanded in Claude’s writing? Is he really kissing his friend’s mother? Then what’s Mr. Germain doing in the kitchen critiquing him while he does? Is Claude pursuing personal desires or projecting his desires for effect? From what point of view are we seeing? The line gets pushed hard when Rapha fails to show up in class one day and Claude offers an explanation in his writing that scares Mr. Germain out of his wits. The writer’s power, of course, is to write a scene from one point of view and then to rewrite it from another. Claude blurts out that he knows Mr. Germain was not going to like his original version of Rapha’s reaction to seeing him kiss his mother so he writes it another way.
If you know a writer, you should know that, as their friend, you’re going to show up in their stories. For a writer, the line between a friend as a separate person and as fodder for a story is a fine one indeed. The line between the real and the imagined is simply not the writer’s focus. It’s the story that counts. And for a writer looking to develop quality writing, the skill to weave fantasy and reality into a compelling drama is the grand objective. Who didn’t read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code searching for the bloodline of Christ as if it would be revealed in spite of knowing the story was a complete fabrication? Fantasy is a land we inhabit as surely as it’s a place that doesn’t exist, especially when it enlivens us. And we like writers who draw from their own life experiences, putting tangible skin in the game.
Giving the Persian King his nightly dose of soul medicine extended Scheherazade’s life for 1001 nights – and gave many more nights of pleasure to readers with many more stories than the well-known Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad. Claude manages to get Mr. Germain to extend his private lessons with irresistible, “to be continued” Scheherazade-like endings until the professor, like the King before him, develops an addictive attachment to his student. Voyeurism does not have to be a sexual preoccupation to become an obsession; “I like women,” Germain declares defensively to his wife in bed one night when she speculates that he has erotic yearnings for Claude. No need for the Greek teacher-student notion. Germain is hooked on Claude’s writing ability to break through his ennui. As movie lovers, we’re arguably diagnosable voyeurs.
As the talented Francois Ozon, charismatic Fabrice Luchini and quicksilver Kristin Scott Thomas lure us into an impatient anticipation of Claude’s next episode of his borderline diabolical portrayal of a family, we don’t know whether to resist or go all in. Voyeurism has its dark side. The more taboo the revelation, the more intriguing the explanation thereof. At times Claude, an unassuming young man who’s invading a friend’s family to satisfy personal desires, seems akin to a scary protagonist in a horror movie. Claude’s collaboration with Mr. Germain takes both of them further into the perils of curiosity than either ever intended. But, for good or bad, Claude revivifies the deadened lives of the Artole and Germain families with his imaginative powers.
How strong is the pull of fantasy in real life? Francois Ozon’s talent is to hover just above the real, reveal just enough to challenge the bounds of ethical reasoning and lead the viewer into temptation to try their own hand at this business of storytelling.
Lies or deep truth? Treachery or revelation? Mockery or comedy? Finality or (To Be Continued…)?
I liked the ending. It begs beginning. Go ahead, sit on a park bench, look into the windows across the way and risk the perils of curious fantasizing.
“ The only form of lying that is absolutely beyond reproach is lying for its own sake. ”
— Oscar Wilde