Apr 23, 2013

In The House

In The House is a very enjoyable movie that is being marketed squarely like a thriller, but is a whimsical, entertaining divertissement by François Ozon on the nature of storytelling and how hooked we humans are on stories. The great Fabrice Luchini stars as Germain, a frustrated novelist and now teacher of literature in a French high school (the Lycee Gustave Flaubert, no less). Among the exasperating mediocrity and indifference of most students, he finds talent in the continuing stories of a young pupil, Claude Garcia, which are supposedly based on his real life experiences. Germain and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) soon become hooked on Claude's storytelling prowess and on his "to be continued" cliffhangers. Young Claude (the handsome and chilling Ernst Umhauer) writes about insinuating himself in the life of Rapha, a fellow student, who lives in a better house, with a better family and a very desirable mother (Emanuelle Seigner). His story becomes increasingly brazen and perverse, but Germain is so enthralled by the possibility of fashioning this kid into a potential novelist, that he neglects to see how his literary advice is making Claude take more dangerous risks, which if  true, could spell real drama in the lives of the real characters. Ozon keeps the surprises coming, as the story of Claude and Rapha gets entwined on the page with Germain and his wife. All is fair game, as far as the writer is concerned.
This could have been a thriller about a sociopath with literary talent, but it's something more unwieldy, more messy, yet quite delightful.  If it sounds like an insufferably intellectual conceit, rest assured that Ozon keeps it breezy and fun. Soon Claude's stories consume Germain and his wife, and it is as hard for the audience to know what is fiction and what is real as it is for the couple. This is indeed true to fiction, which borrows from real life, sometimes literally, sometimes with invention and exaggeration, and only the writer knows which is which (if they can keep them apart).
Ozon has explored these fiction/reality themes before in movies like Swimming Pool, but here he goes for a light, comedic touch, not devoid of class satire, a gentle ribbing of classisist snobs like Germain and of rich grand dames who own art galleries (where Jeanne works) that show facile art meant to shock their own ilk.
Luchini is dry, deadpan and funny, touchingly distraught by the tale he is helping his student spin. As a curt, distant professor, he comes alive as he takes the sinister Claude under his wing. He is not a drooling, warmly encouraging teacher. He's critical and tough, which makes the kid write with a vengeance. The movie is smart and nimble, but there are a couple of plot points that strain credulity. Having established that all is fair in the telling of a story, Ozon cheekily demands we believe that the otherwise straight arrow Germain is willing to get into major trouble in order just to continue reading. Some of the darker aspects of the story are tonally at odds with the frothy atmosphere. Still, Ozon sustains the fun, intellectual hi-jinks with seamless grace, and a gossamer touch. He seems to enjoy the endless possibilities that the very act of telling the story gives him: shall he land the story into farce or tragedy?  Shall he keep it realistic, or indulge in whimsy? He somehow tries it all, and it works.

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