‘The house of fiction has in short not one window but a million’ – Henry James, preface to The Portrait of a Lady, 1908
François Ozon’s In The House has been described by critics as a ‘psychological drama’, ‘a tantalising comedy’ and even as an ‘enjoyable romp’. It’s hard to deny that, so far, the French director’s output has been nothing short of diverse – he has comfortably jumped from the heart-wrenching chamber piece 5x2 (2004) to the camp farce that was Potiche (2010). However, this does not mean that Ozon is a mere ‘genre tourist’: like many great auteurs, he had recurrent preoccupations (in his case, the malaise of the bourgeois family), and an identifiable style. His new film, a compelling melange of black comedy and melodrama, is in many ways ‘classic’ Ozon; part satire, part coming of age story. In The House elegantly tip-toes amongst different genres, explicitly referencing both Woody Allen and Pier Paolo Pasolini in the process.
Fabrice Luchini stars as Germain, a middle aged literature teacher disillusioned with the perceived lack of writing skills amongst his pupils. Whilst marking homework, he is reinvigorated only by one essay, penned by the mischievous and quick-witted Claude, who has wangled his way into the middle class home of his school friend Rapha just to spy on what he caustically (but somewhat enviously) describes as ‘the perfect family’. Germain and his wife Jeanne (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) are both appalled by the boy’s morally questionable and often lurid investigation, although they don’t do anything to try and put a stop to it. Germain, who is a ‘failed writer’ himself, finds he has a new aim in his life and actively encourages Claude by offering post-school writing classes.
From this moment on, it becomes clear that the film’s real protagonist is the notion of storytelling; Ozon has fun dissecting the nature of creativity and the boundaries between reality and fiction. Germain tells Claude that his prose needs to become less observational (at one point the student admits: ‘This is what I see’) – he essentially suggests he should impose a narrative on what he is experiencing. The teacher’s literary guidance becomes more and more important (almost suggesting a skewed Virgil-like figure), to the point when he is physically introduced in Claude’s fiction (a device used to great effect in Annie Hall). Perhaps Germain is also manipulating what the audience is seeing – are we experiencing the story through is eyes? Is the lurid tale one of his own making, a verbalisation of his own frustrations? It seems like a fair question since Claude is never on camera on his own telling the story; he is always prompted (if not directed) by his teacher.
The situation quickly becomes potentially tragic, as the young pupil goes one to two steps too far in his attempt to cynically interfere with other people’s lives – at one point, he even reminds us of Terence Stamp’s nameless character in Theorem: he attempts to desecrate the family home and almost destroys it. This potent premise is perceptibly softened by the drily humorous exchanges between Germain and Jeanne (the seemingly happy accomplices) and by the self-reflexive nature of the film, as references to literature (Celine and J.D. Salinger are quoted in key moments) and the act of writing are always omnipresent. It’s a technique that allows the viewer to develop a certain amount of detachment, in an almost Brechtian sense. It makes us leave the cinema wondering about the nature of both writer and reader, and of both filmmaker and viewer. Why are we compelled to watch something that we consider questionable?
The answer lies with the somewhat sentimental yet pivotal finale. Claude and Germain are gazing at an apartment block (modelled on the one in Hitchcock’s Rear Window), observing its inhabitants and wondering who they are and what they are doing. Ozon’s message is clear: for better or for worse, we all need to create stories to help us make sense of what surrounds us.