In The House

François Ozon shows how first class essays can be written without doing any reading or planning, as ELIZA LASS finds out.

dans la maison eliza lass francois ozon in the house kristen scott thomas

In the House

Original Title: Dans La Maison

Directed By: François Ozon

Starring: Ernst Umhauer, Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas

Running Time: 105 min

We are all familiar with the guilty pleasure of looking into the lives of others. We are also all familiar with those characters, simultaneously scary and sad, for whom mere observation is not enough. From Eli ‘I always wanted to be a Tenenbaum’ Cash to Tom ‘The Talented Mr.’ Ripley, it rarely ends well for those who feel compelled to get involved, and rearrange some things in the lives of their chosen targets. The latest offering from François Ozon, in equal parts black comedy and psychological thriller, offers us such a character in Claude Garcia. A demonic dreamboat of a teenager, Garcia chooses his victims not out of love, or sexual obsession, but for their abilities in helping him complete… his literature homework.

Claude (played by relative newcomer Ernst Umhauer) may look like a Bernini angel, but under that mop of golden hair, a wickedly talented mind is whirring. This comes to the attention of his fussy teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini): marking Claude’s deceptively simple essay about a visit to a classmate’s house, he realises that the student has an agenda which is not only creative but potentially predatory. Germain is fascinated by Claude’s voyeurism. Nothing escapes Claude’s oddly critical gaze – not his dopey friend Rafa, and certainly not Rafa’s bored mother, upon whom Claude smells “the singular scent of a middle class woman.” It’s creepy and a bit rude, but no matter: Germain is so thrilled to have a student capable of stringing a proper sentence together that he adopts Claude as his literary protégé, offering advice and encouragement.

Claude the silent observer eventually becomes Claude the puppeteer, worming his way into Rafa’s bourgeois home, and Germain soon finds himself also playing an unhealthily active  and compulsive role in his writing. Both teacher and student depend on each other – Claude needs Germain’s support, and Germain needs the excitement of Claude’s weekly installments to light up his own life and distract him from other, more personal disappointments. His gallery-owning wife (Kristin Scott Thomas; enjoying herself hugely) senses there may be manipulation afoot but she, too, is carried away by her own curiosity – and so is the audience. Subplots about the modern art market and unrequited love should be distracting, but we are having far too much fun to mind.

Like his last film, Potiche (2010), this is a film adapted from a play and Ozon exploits the comparative luxury of his medium with relish. Aided by Philippe Rombi’s panicky score, he commands the action with as much gleeful skill as his devious protagonist in pushing the viewer into an almost perpetual state of anxiety. Ozon takes a fiendish delight in the unfolding of his layered plots, lingering over the cruel angles of Claude’s face as he hovers in doorways, loiters in corridors, and even, in one unashamedly panto-esque scene, lurks in a dark corner of the very room in which Rafa’s oblivious parents sit.

In the house still

Though this film is, happily, so much sharper than some of Ozon’s other films (his rather slight 2009 effort Le Refuge for instance), it is not without its flaws. After a spectacular build up, the denouement is, while not totally flaccid, somewhat anticlimactic. Umhauer’s chilly Claude is beautifully restrained, but he plays Claude with the sexual energy of a dead moth. Particularly when his story starts veering into ‘Stacey’s Mom’ territory, it is strangely difficult to believe him capable of lust.

And we never find out as much about Claude’s motives as we might like to. The few scenes set in Claude’s own home surely point to the reasons why he is the way he is, but these sad, brief moments are over before you can utter ‘Freudian analysis.’ It could be that he is supposed to remain unknowable, and I’m just betraying my own impatience with ambiguity. In any case, these niggles only make this thought-provoking film more fun to argue about.

Plus, the elaborate, joyfully unsubtle last shot is almost worth the price of a ticket alone.