15/05/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

In The House (2013)

In The House (2013)
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

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15/05/03 Film Essay # , ,

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Directors: Andy WachowskiLana Wachowski
Writers: Andy WachowskiLana Wachowski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss


Is it a bird, is it a plane — is it Superman?  No.  It’s Matrix Reloaded.  Not quite machine, not quite human, not quite movie, not quite video game, Reloaded is so much faster than a speeding bullet that the comic book transmogrification to big screen makes leaping tall buildings at a single leap seem like child’s play.  Matrix Reloaded is no Matrix, but for the kid in all of us, heroes who can counteract the modern madness of terror are welcome.  Too bad it’s just a movie.”

Caught up – as I was – by the extraordinary ability of the first Matrix to reach beyond the common place, turning Hollywood’s familiar simplistic and dualistic resolutions of the never-ending fight between good and evil into an inspirational Zen koan, I naturally anticipated something less from its sequel, Matrix Reloaded.  Matrix had spun the complex, elusive psychological concepts of personal integration and transformation into a world class film.  It aroused hearts and turned minds toward a hopeful vision — an ordinary human being could overcome the enemy within, fighting back against war in the world by means within personal grasp.

Very satisfying.  And not, in my opinion, needy of a sequel.

But I’d heard that Matrix Reloaded redefined the meaning of space and time in movies and so, if for no other reason than curiosity, I bought a ticket.  I wanted to see how close the Wachowskis could come to spinning the straw of their mind’s eye into the gold of cyberspace.  Sure enough, they did just that.

They don’t beat the Matrix.  They don’t tell a better story, embellishing poorly on the old one with a nod to the triumph of love over death that fails to create anything more than old-fashioned romantic chemistry. They reload the issue of mind over matter but create more laughter than thoughtfulness.  The idea of imagining reality into existence, a mystery of Aborigine origin touched upon in the first Matrix becomes, as I said, like leaping tall buildings in Matrix Reloaded.  Funny book time, not timelessness.  Special effects take over, delighting the eye with tricks that require no explanation and make no demand. Updated, with an invisible someone pushing the red and blue buttons of choice on the controller.

Matrix Reloaded is open to so much criticism of character, plot and meaning that the only way to engage is not to.  If you can, don’t think of it as a sequel.  Reloaded actually unloads what was significant in Matrix.  In Matrix, Neo integrated Agent Smith, bearer of an evil machine reality that stole the human soul, but now Smith returns with the human ability to clone himself without restraint.  This guts the original Matrix promise that evil can be integrated and transformed by an enlightened consciousness.  You could identify with an underlying scheme of truth and possibility in Matrix, make it your own.  The characters felt both real and not.  The plot seemed plausible and not.  The significance held true, entertaining the adolescent and affirming the adult.  But in Reloaded, heroic feats are so far beyond human accomplishment that they deny personal identification.

The point of invisible marionette’s strings is to stimulate a participatory emotion, creating an empathic connection between audience and puppet.  Reloaded goes the other way, separating observer and actor by making it impossible for viewer to identify with character.  Stereotyped to the max, love and affection as well as lust and thrust are flattened, stripped of messy feelings that could get out of control.  A mob scene with no heat?  A love scene on a concrete pedestal?  And the high jinks on the freeway are beyond anyone, suitable only to a super computerized action figure.  No real person could ever catch himself by the toes of his shoes on the back end of a truck roof traveling seventy miles an hour on a freeway.  Yet for the kid in all of us who loves a game where no one stays dead for very long, no high speed chase scene could go on for too long because there’s always the next wild, way out, over-the-top, gravity defying feat coming up.

Funnily enough, Reloaded gives away the secret of what keeps a kid (and lots of adults) sitting for hours playing video games.  It’s a form of soft core gambling!  Repetitive, newfound chances to win against all odds keep popping up, leaving the player swimming hopefully upstream against a powerful downward spiraling current of adversity.  Magical forces and splendiferous entities morph into different concoctions of good and evil to pit their wits against one another, momentarily claim power and then lose it.  The good guys fight against despotic rules and regulations for the sake of freedom and love.  The bad guys bear down like evil weevils, attempting to suck the life out of the good guys’ core of motivation and determination.  That’s the spin.  And the reloaded truth, “Some things never change, and some things do.”

Not without redeeming features; Matrix Reloaded jams from beginning to end with life-saving conquests, overlapping realities and doors of perception.  It leaves a few questions hanging in the air for now and future consideration.  When is a dream not a dream?  Who’s really in control? What’s the role of belief, purpose and prophesy? What’s choice got to do with it?

The Wachowskis reliably bend time and space into a thrilling, never-seen-before action event that, most likely, will change the way we see things in film for a long time to come.

And it’s not too much of a stretch to see Lois Lane morphed into Trinity; she still needs to be rescued by a super man.

Take your earplugs.  Be prepared to laugh.  It’s no sequel.

“Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound —

‘Look, up in the sky,’ ‘It’s a bird,’ ‘It’s a plane,’

‘It’s Superman….’ ”  Reloaded.

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