A sparkling concoction of literary allusion, meta-fiction and plain old yarn spinning, François Ozon’s In The House is also funny enough to entertain those of us who haven’t read a fraction of the books referenced in the film.
One of the chief pleasures of the film is its sheer love of stories. The plot broadly concerns the relationship between a jaded teacher at a trendy secondary school, Germain (Fabrice Luchini, who featured in Ozon‘s Potiche) and a brilliant student Claude (newcomer Ernst Umhauer). This relationship broadens out to encompass the families of both men as well as grappling with how stories are told.
In the House may be meta-fictional and intelligent, but it is also very funny. It rattles along at a rate of knots – I found it difficult to jot down even the smallest of notes lest I miss another ironic bon mot issuing from the mouth of Germain or vital twist in the plot. Ozon has repeatedly mentioned the influence the influence of Alfred Hitchcock on his film making, and as well as being flawlessly plotted he even seems to have borrowed Bernard Herrmanneque swirling strings to propel us onward.
So, Grumpy Germain assigns his class to write about their weekend. Almost everyone hands in rubbish, only Claude’s piece about how he has wangled his way into the home of a school friend in order to do a bit of snooping is genuinely intriguing. The teacher reads the work to his wife Jeanne (a marvellous Kristin Scott Thomas), and they are both hooked. Their interest is especially piqued by the way he signs off his writing with (To be continued) in brackets. He asks Claude to write another instalment – pretty much tantamount to asking him to snoop on his friend and the boy’s family.
So begins the tale of this intelligent, but morally ambiguous, young man insinuating himself into an apparently ordinary middle class. A family so ordinary and apparently happy that they can’t possibly have any hidden desires and frustrations, can they? And also so begins the tale of how a frustrated teacher attempts to train a gifted pupil into becoming a skilled story teller and accomplished writer. And also begins an riff on how the telling of a story is everything.
Germain is a marvellous character – melancholic, manipulative, and slightly camp. He explains that to improve one’s storytelling technique, the audience must know more about the characters, and so Claude must get to know the individual members of the family better. Or must he? Because as a decent writer will be able to make it up. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly muddy as to what is real and what is invented.
As mentioned earlier, the film is dense with literary references. A colleague tells Germain he’s a pessimist and he admits to reading Schopenhauer all summer, the school is named after Flaubert, and even Jeanne’s gallery is called The Minotaur’s Labyrinth. The entire world of In The House is made up of stories, it is a labyrinth of tales that unlike Daedalus and Icarus, it is impossible to escape from.
All this ‘meta-ness’ caught me up in a giddying, thrilling whirl. However, Ozon shares a belief with his character Germain in the importance of filling out character properly. I, at least, believed in and felt for everyone, although it is possible that some may find In the House just too arch to really care about anyone.
In addition to Hitchcock, the ghost of Pier Paolo Pasolini hangs over the film. Germain even mentions Teorema, the Italian maestro’s film, where Terence Stamp’s Visitor insinuates himself into a bourgeois household with disastrous results. Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life series must be equally relevant – his adaptations of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The 1001 Nights – all three reveling in stories and storytelling. Anyone who longs for the next instalment will not want to leave this particular house.
Read our interview with Kristin Scott Thomas and François Ozon here.