Review: In the House


There’s a great short story in Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness called “Builders.” In it, one of the characters naively but sincerely thinks of writing in terms of building houses, and the windows are places where light can shine through. It’s in the earnestness of such a hackneyed analogy that Yates — like he usually does — finds something fragile, pitiful, and painfully human. I came to crave the possibility of some benign windows, some sunny days, or even, as Yates puts it, light spilling through the cracks in “the builder’s faulty craftsmanship.”

Windows have a different purpose in François Ozon’s In the House. Since it’s a movie about writing, there’s still building involved. Almost all of the action in the film’s story-within-a-story takes place inside of a generally idyllic French suburban home. But rather than just letting light in, the windows are an entry point for an intruder, a young writer named Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). The windows are also entry points for curious readers who peek into these lives like voyeurs.

What Ozon constructs is a wily riff on a home invasion film that’s part mystery, part thriller, part comedy, and part drama. It’s not as sexy as Swimming Pool, but it’s as consistently tantalizing as the phrase “to be continued…”

[This review originally ran during the film’s screenings at Rendez Vous with French Cinema 2013. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of In the House.]

In The House TRAILER 1 (2013) - Kristin Scott Thomas Thriller HD

In the House (Dans la Maison)
Director: François Ozon
Rating: TBD
Release Date: April 19, 2013 (New York and LA); additional cities and dates to follow
Country: France

Claude’s just a teenager, but his writing gets the attention of his French Literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), and Germain’s wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). While grading papers, Germain bemoans the stupidity of his students who generally write about pizza, cell phones, and nothing, but Claude is different. When writing about his weekend, he weaves a series of accomplished observations about a friend’s family. The young writer reveals his attraction to his friend’s mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), a quintessential middle-class housewife who, in the text, smolders with quiet and unfulfilled desire. The brief piece that Germain reads is filled with just the right amount of sophistication and condescension to sound like a precocious teen rather than an adult affecting the writing style of a precocious teen. (The latter is one of the biggest problems with most works about brilliant young writers.)

Germain takes Claude under his wing to help mentor the young talent. In their one-on-one workshops they go through basic observations about writing — Creative Writing 101 stuff — but what’s interesting is how Claude begins to incorporate and subvert these ideas in his own work. The relationship begins as teacher-student, but since this is Ozon, there are various reversals in store. What’s fascinating is how gripped Germain and Jeanne are with Claude’s story. He ends each of his installments with domestic cliffhangers: whispers, secrets, incipient schemes, tentative seduction. Germain prods his young writer, pushing him to observe and to write more humanely. Some of this is genuine admiration for the young man’s gifts, but there’s also envy — Claude is more talented that Germain could ever be, and both know it.

Ozon plays with different layers of truth in Claude’s writing and his relationships in real life, which points out the artifice of writing, even if it’s ostensibly non-fiction. Esther, her son, and her husband are real people that Claude is forcing himself upon, and yet they are also characters in his writing. His tone toward them shifts. At first it’s mocking, as if he’s trying to make a farce of middle-class comforts and worries. Then it’s more like a thriller, then it’s charged with eroticism. Both Germain and Jeanne wonder what the family is like in real life, and both come to question how true Claude’s story is.

Amid the compelling swerves in the story is the meta-fictive material that’s unavoidable in movies about writing. Germain and Jeanne are real people reading about fictional characters based on real people, but they’re all fictional characters anyway. The various discussions of writing affect the film itself as well as the story-within-a-story that Claude is writing. And then, eventually, Germain and Jeanne find themselves involved in Claude’s story on the periphery, and yet they’re oblivious to the fact they’re characters in the film even though they speak knowingly about the nature of characters. They’re making predictions about the lives they’re reading, but they’re also engaged in a kind of unintentional self-diagnosis.

Some of this is explored early on as Germain and Jeanne wonder about Claude’s intentions in writing about this family. Claude mocks Esther for her ignorance concerning a collection of Paul Klee prints in the hallway, which she sees as merely decorative. Jeanne works at a bad art gallery that specializes in art as mere commodities: pretty images of the sky, accessories made of used tires, potential investments for people who don’t care about art; fine art as tchotchkes, accessories, college fund bric-a-brac. Even the sensational, transgressive art in the gallery seems to be the edgy stuff out of high school — sex and fascism (literally) in the midst of banal middle-class society. And Germain and Jeanna are blind to it; they’re able to look into the windows of Esther’s house through Claude’s work, but they don’t sense that they’re also targets in Claude’s writing.

And then there’s the matter of conflict, which is at the heart of the mystery of In the House. Even though he’s totally wrapped up in the drama of the unfolding story, Germain tells Claude his narrative is flaggig. The hero of the story (Claude himself) must desire something and overcome obstacles to get what he’s after. Claude explicitly states what his character in the story is after, but what is Claude himself actually after? Is he trying to replace his friend? Sleep with his friend’s mother? Or is he just trying to toy with people? The conflict of the film is Germain’s desire to find out Claude’s real-life conflict. But since Germain’s an inattentive reader who can’t see beyond what the text says on the surface, he stumbles through the house that Claude built, down every intricately placed hallway, through each odd and umarked door, in the dark.

The old truism about movies centering on writers is that the writer is a surrogate for the filmmaker’s ideas about storytelling. If both Germain and Claude are pieces of Ozon, he seems to be expressing two sides: the reader/writer (or the audience/filmmaker, if you prefer). As Germain, the reader, there is nothing better than getting lost in a story; as Claude, the writer, there is nothing better than to lead people astray. In Esther’s home, there’s room enough to play with both.

More than the meta-fictive stuff, the pleasure of In the House is similar to pleasure derived from any good thriller or mystery: there’s a desire to know what happens next, whether it’s in Claude’s writing or in the life of Germain. I shared in Germain and Jeanne’s anticipation for each new installment and felt an excited frustration with each “to be continued…” that Claude dropped. In the House is about the lengths we’re willing to go to hear a good story through to its end, and how we unexpectedly compromise when we’re driven by that need.

On my way out of the screening, three people stood in the aisle and briefly blocked my way. I heard one of them say that the final shots of In the House reminded them of another movie. She declared with excruciating pomposity to her nodding friends, “Oh, there’s nothing original, they’re never giving us anything new.” I don’t want to say what movie the final shots make reference to, but I will say that these people were only partially right. On the surface, the shots are about gazes and voyeurism, and yet the note that Ozon closes his movie on is far more sinister than the film he pays homage to. It’s as if the people in the aisle, like some of the characters from In the House, didn’t understand what they were actually reading.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.