In the House is the new film from esteemed French writer-director Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, Potiche) adapted from ‘The Boy in the Last Row’ by Juan Mayorga. It is a dual character study of a world-weary teacher and failed novelist, and a gifted, but evidently troubled pupil who displays exceptional writing talent. It is an unsettling drama that leaves plenty to ponder, and deals with voyeurism, professional misconduct, the blurring of reality and fiction, and the conscious manipulation of the family dynamic.
Germaine (Fabrice Luchini) is a frustrated old-fashioned English literature teacher who has all-but given up hope for the new generation when he expresses his dismay to his art-curator wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), at his students’ recent inept efforts. Only one pupil from his class, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), turns in anything proficient on a writing assignment. Intrigued by the boy’s interesting, but somewhat inappropriate account of his weekend (which ends with a ‘to be continued…’), he questions whether it is a recount of the truth, or if it has been influenced by his imagination. This mystery remains throughout the film as we only ever see the events unfold as Luchini is reading them out.
Germaine takes an unnervingly voyeuristic interest in the boy’s follow-up essays. We learn that Claude has befriended a classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). Offering to help him with his mathematics, he manages to ‘infiltrate’ the house of what he declares to be the perfect middle class family. Soon enough Rapha’s parents (a jovial Denis Menochet and a suffocated Emmanuelle Seigner) begin to treat him like a second son. Over time his actions and intentions become more sinister, and Germaine, hooked on the story, begins to play a role in manipulating events (even procuring a test in advance to help Rapha pass math) to ensure that Claude continues to be invited into the house, and with means to elaborate on his tale.
In the House opens up leisurely, setting the stage and developing some interesting relationships. Though tagged as a thriller, it has some surprisingly subversive humour. Claude provides sharp commentary on Rapha Sr.’s adamant knowledge on China and shared enthusiasm with his son for basketball, and Esther’s bored tolerance and trapped sexuality. Watching him infiltrate this environment in a predatory fashion is unnerving.
It is unclear until late in the film what Claude’s family situation is, but there is evidence to suggest that his home life is far from a happy one. He covets the family, and reveals the desire to be a part of their cozy green-lawned, cottage-esque dwelling. In extension, we witness Germaine’s unhealthy fascination with the charming but clearly devious youth and his captivating prose.
Claude’s writing is a reality-based fiction. The characters in his series of essays actually exist. Rapha is his friend. He does visit his house and assist him with geometry. But are the events he describes – a lust for Rapha’s mother, a wrestle for superiority to win the respect of Rapha’s father – actually taking place? How much sense of responsibility does Germaine have, learning what he does? He vows never to show the stories to anyone, yet his wife reads along. Germaine, in an unsettlingly voyeuristic turn-of-event, takes an interest in the subjects, advising his young protégé to push the boundaries and explore his characters. Then he realizes that the scenario is getting out of hand.
I felt like a lot of the film’s strong development was undone by a beguiling final act, which takes a shift away from Rapha’s family and adopts another source of Claude’s fascination, a man who has involved himself irresponsibly – there are questions floating around the school about the nature of the teacher/pupil relationship – and left himself become vulnerable to his own infiltration. Due to the montage-esque structure throughout the film’s middle, it is uncertain how often Claude visits Rapha’s house and meets with his teacher, but it seems like an awful lot. I find it hard to believe that these suspicious actions only aroused a single passing comment.
The performances from Luchini (who is a talented comedic actor, having charmed audiences in Potiche and Women on the 6th Floor in years prior), Umhauer, Menochet and Seigner are all very strong. The interior of Rapha’s house is given a dreamy (almost erotic) appearance, which matched Claude’s perspective and writing tone.
Reality and fiction become cloudy in this ponderous tale of voyeurism and desire. Ozon tracks the emotional and academic awakening of a world-weary professor through a teenager’s sensual tale, and his interest provokes some conflict, both within the film itself, and our own minds.
[rating=3] and a half
Andrew Buckle – follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Sydney: 5-24 March – Chauvel Cinema, Palace Norton Street, Palace Verona and Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace
Melbourne: 6-24 March – Palace Balwyn, Palace Brighton Bay, Palace Cinema Como, Palace Westgarth and Kino Cinemas
Canberra: 7-26 March – Palace Electric Cinema
Brisbane: 14 March – 4 April – Palace Barracks Cinemas and Palace Centro Cinemas
Adelaide: 19 March – 7 April – Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas
Perth: 19 March – 7 April – Cinema Paradiso, Luna on SX and Windsor Cinema