Francois Ozon’s psychological mystery “In the House,” which is adapted from the play by Juan Mayorga, works as an interesting companion piece to Ozon’s 2003 film “Swimming Pool.” Both center on a middle-aged literary curmudgeon who develops a fantastic fixation on a young, enticing and distinctly threatening protégée, while blurring the lines between reality and lurid imagination. What events actually happen, and what events get cooked up along the way by a smart, jaded mind all too willing to introduce a little excitement to the story?
In “Swimming Pool,” the better of the two films, Charlotte Rampling seemingly invents a lethal babe (Ludivine Sagnier) with whom to spend her summer holiday in the French countryside. The strength of that film is that what happens “in the house” — a rustic mini-chateau drenched in sunlight — is absorbingly suspenseful, and occupied by characters both sumptuously extraordinary yet intriguingly real (whether they’re in fact real or not).
Meanwhile, “In the House” suffers because what takes place inside the title maison is a thin, satirical cardboard cut-out of a real drama.
High school lit professor Germain (Fabrice Luchini), an owl-eyed,
unsmiling grump, receives an alarmingly biting if well-written student essay near the beginning of the semester. The writer is Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), an angelic-looking imp from the other side of the tracks who has made an after-school habit of going home with his bourgeois friend Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and observing how the other half lives. In the essay, Claude details with cynicism Rapha’s large house, his bored mother (Emmanuelle
Seigner), who “has the distinct smell of a middle-class woman,” and his
basketball-loving father, who deals in cheap Chinese labor.
This first writing assignment, ending abruptly with “To Be
Continued,” turns into another essay and then another, which Claude hands over to
the perplexed Germain, who is both taken aback by Claude’s hurtful observations
and enticed by the prospect of a student who can actually write. As is
Germain’s wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who willingly digs into Claude’s
essays with her husband while maintaining a circumspect distance from them.
Perhaps because Germain feels defeated by his own lackluster writing career, he
forms an obsession with Claude that is at once vicarious, paternal,
instructional and vaguely sexual.
Narrated by Claude, the scenes inside Rapha’s house — which take up a good half of the film — feel slight. This is actually a broader version of a critique
Germain jabs at Claude numerous times throughout their increasingly heated writing sessions:
Rapha is an underdeveloped character. The point of
Germain saying this is partly to steer Claude away from his obvious overriding
narrative (and libidinal) interest in Rapha’s blonde, sleepy-eyed mother, and
to focus instead on his friend. To the childless Germain, the son of the family holds
a particular significance.
Maybe the lack of fascinating fodder inside Rapha’s home is
due to Claude’s amateur writing abilities; or maybe it’s due to Ozon missing
the mark, getting wrapped up in an overly clever yet somehow flat portrait of
middle-class malaise. The scenes between Luchini and Umhauer comprise the far
superior half of the film, as do those between Luchini and the underused but
top-form Scott Thomas.
Indeed, it’s the marriage between Germain and Jeanne that
deserves a week-by-week chronicling, and might have provided a better focus for Claude’s pen-and-paper oeuvre. Jeanne, always sporting a different pair of
appropriately funky red eye-glasses, is struggling to keep her gallery afloat, and
adorning it with artwork of woefully derivative shock value and, well, cock
value. (Case in point: One exhibition boasts photographs of penises in the
shape of a swastika, and tits in the shape of a Star of David.) Germain clearly
has little interest in what she does for a living and, as his obsession with
Claude escalates, little interest in what he and his wife do in the bedroom.
As Germain’s voyeuristic tendencies increase, his attention
to the woman in his life decreases. This reminds me of another
character, a certain L.B. Jefferies (played by James Stewart) from Alfred
Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.” Ozon is obviously in awe of that classic work, as
the last shot of “In the House” attests. But peering inside a home and getting
inside the lives therein are two different matters.