To say that François Ozon has worked in many genres would be a misstatement, but only because his films tend to ignore the boundaries of genre in the first place. 8 Women is a musical, melodrama and murder mystery. Swimming Pool is a thriller inflected by romance novels. Sitcom is a fusion of sitcom tropes and rambunctious sexuality. And now, Ozon has made a film that functions almost as a retrospective blend of his own prior work. In the House builds from the insightful narrative trickery of Swimming Pool, blends in the promiscuous anarchy and wry humor of Sitcom, and drops the whole thing into the otherwise boring “inspirational schoolteacher” movie. The result is Ozon’s best work in a decade.
The student in question is Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), a sly young man with a lot of ambition and little humility. He’s the star of his literature class, taught by once-aspiring novelist Germain (Fabrice Luchini). It begins with a simple writing assignment, an inevitably banal account of a weekend. What Claude turns in, however, is anything but mundane. His tale revolves around a visit to the home of a “normal family,” that of his apparently run-of-the-mill classmate. Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto) lives in a lovely suburban house, the only child of (also) Rapha (Denis Ménochet) and Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). Claude’s narrative mostly emphasizes his fascination from the perspective of class, of the working class kid infiltrating the “perfect” bourgeois world of his new friend. Yet this is only Chapter One, and as Claude keeps writing the story will only become more audacious.
Initially, Germain wants him to stop. The story crosses lines of privacy and it’s too risky, too pulpy. Yet at the same time, he can’t put it down. He ends up mentoring Claude, becoming more and more involved in the narrative. Claude’s visits to Chez Artole become transgressive, as he boldly begins to color these characters more fully. Rapha Sr. has a good corporate job, with all the accompanying anxieties of brash masculinity. Esther, meanwhile, plays the bored and listless housewife. Rapha Jr. is left mild at first, as Claude is initially more interested in the adults. One by one the members of the Artole family are sexualized and scrutinized in this adolescent novel, with a narrative that may or may not even be true.
The role Claude gives himself is obviously a throwback to Ozon’s Sitcom and then more directly Pasolini’s Teorema, which Germain even names. The teacher’s response is one of reinforcement but wariness, and eventually rejection. It’s too trashy and not a mature enough work. Germain might be right, but he’s also probably jealous. We learn of his tastes through his interaction with the work at his wife’s art gallery, sexualized caricatures of Mao and Stalin. He occasionally comes off as stodgy rather than discerning.
(His wife, by the way, is played by the perfectly cast Kristin Scott Thomas. More French, less Salmon Fishing, SVP.)
One might read the relationship between Claude and Germain as the two sides of Ozon’s career. The younger version makes rougher, more daring art that goes right for the jugular of French bourgeois society. His characterization of the two Raphas as brutes, sometimes with a homoerotic tone and sometimes with disgust, brushes against the hairy hermit’s abuse of Jérémie Renier’s character in Criminal Lovers. Claude’s cold approach to the Artoles evokes the harsh dominance of Bernard Girardeau’s Léopold in Water Drops on Burning Rocks. These elements of Claude’s writing are considered juvenile by Germain, the immature fire of a writer without sufficient perspective.
Germain, on the other hand, is blander and less successful. At times he is the voice of reason, but only at times. Who has the better approach to literature? As Claude’s intrusion into the lives of the Artoles only grows more intense, the narrative runs away from its writers. The Raphas get to do some actual acting, well beyond the initial stereotypes that Claude and Germain assign to them. Ughetto and Ménochet deliver. Segnier, meanwhile, twists the simplistic characterization of the bored housewife and gives a performance equal to any other by an actress in Ozon’s very actress-y filmography.
In the end, however, Claude and Germain are left to pick up the pieces. The Artoles, thoroughly scrutinized, take a step back to the Pandora’s Box opened into the lives of these two cocky writers. In a third act that asks the most interesting questions Ozon has asked in years, In the House explores the ramifications of its own narrative. It’s almost like seeing an alternative ending to Teorema or Swimming Pool, couched in a less challenging environment.
There aren’t necessarily answers offered, beyond to be wary of what you write and how you understand your subjects. But I’m not sure this is a film that needs to offer answers. At the very least, we should be thrilled that Ozon is yet again careful about which envelope he’s trying to push.
The Upside: Witty, intriguing and well-acted, this is undoubtedly Ozon’s best work in a decade.
The Downside: The inspiring-teacher genre is still one of the most inherently dull out there, and occasionally Ozon falls into its classroom-scene clichés. Only, occasionally, though.
On the Side: I think it’s the first film I’ve seen to directly reference both Pasolini and Hitchcock. But that can’t be. Someone give me another example.