Art House darling François Ozon follows up his broad 2010 comedy Potiche with this darkly comic meditation on the art of writing. Snobbish High School literature teacher Fabrice Luchini is an educator who has long since given up on the idea that he can make a difference. The school administration has just implemented a new uniform policy that designed to ‘change the culture’ but Luchini has been a teacher long enough to know that this won’t be the case. Given the assignment of writing about their weekends, most of his pupils submit two-line essays, mostly along the lines of ‘ate pizza, watched TV’. The only exception is Claude, the boy in the last row.
Claude has written an elegant confession, detailing his budding friendship with classmate Rapha; a relationship entirely predicated on a fascination with his family. Luchini probably knows that he shouldn’t encourage Claude’s borderline sociopathic behaviour, but he’s intrigued by the boy’s talent. Claude continues chronicling his experiences with Rapha’s family -–his obsession with the mother (Emmanuelle Seigner), his disdain for the father– while his teacher continues commenting on it as though it were prose exercises. And as Luchini points out to him, we as the audience/reader have started to question his writing: Do his essays actually reveal the truth of Rapha’s family? Are stories a reflection of the author, or do they in fact reveal something about their intended readers?
We’re really not doing the film justice with this explanation, but it tackles this lofty concept well, balancing philosophical elements with streaks of black humour and biting middle class satire.
Also starring is Kristin Scott Thomas as Luchini’s wife, the curator of a gallery that seemingly caters to the worst excesses of modern art schools. It’s no coincidence that she appears almost exclusively in French films these days – English language films don’t provide many great roles for les femmes d’un certain age. British films wouldn’t know what to do with an actress over 40, apart from cast her as a mother or a crazy aunt.
The great joy of this film is how Ozon keeps us guessing exactly what kind of movie he’s making: it gives the impression that it’s a comedy but it always seems to be on the brink of becoming a domestic thriller. It’s a film about the art of writing but fashioned in such a way that it’s incredibly tense at times!
Detractors would suggest that In the House is a film that works better on an cerebral level than on an emotional one: they would suggest that it’s too clever, in that awful way of suggesting that all films need to pander to everyone. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Luchini’s character looks like Woody Allen. The film has the lofty intellectual and structural ambitions of Allen’s best films and at times, it’s incredibly funny as well.
Some viewers may leave this movie feeling cold, but we suspect that many will discover a thoughtful, nuanced and satisfyingly provocative piece of work.
In the House (Dans la maison) will be showing in selected cinemas Friday 29th March