Of schoolboy crushes and French assignments, François Ozon’s labyrinthine In The House is an intricate maze of fiction and reality worth getting lost in.
Storyville by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It couldn’t be another school, could it? It had to be the Lycée Gustave Flaubert. After all, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” And while Potiche is the more likely inspiration for the author’s deluded, upwardly mobile and unfaithful housewife, it’s Flaubert’s identification with his fictional heroine that provides the inter-narrative (and queer) grist to François Ozon’s In The House with its tale of gifted schoolboy Claude writing a fictionalised version of himself – befriending a teenage classmate, visiting their home and seducing his family. With its familiar themes of writing, voyeurism, subversive desire, manipulation and the obscure interplay of fiction and reality, Dans La Maison is most reminiscent of Ozon’s Swimming Pool. But Ozon has honed his craft further. And like the art gallery managed by Professeur Germain’s wife, we descend deeper and deeper into Ozon’s latest maze of fictional levels, his Labyrinthe du Minotaure, with the director bullishly at its centre.
Dans La Maison couldn’t in fact be less like Potiche, its pastiche of tracksuits, rollers, wings and wallpaper replaced with the all too familiar realism of the modern classroom. Out of the daily grind of teaching barbarian students and of being a star pupil in a new school, fiction takes on a seductive power. For Claude, his literary writing plucks him out of his miserable, grey existence depositing him into a fantasy world of father-son bonding and beautiful middle-class women. While for Germain, nurturing Claude’s talent allows him the illusion of succeeding as a teacher as well as the fond nostalgia of a younger self and his own endeavours at writing a novel. And as Germain hands over works of literature in exchange for the next chapter of Claude’s story, both teacher and student fall deeper and deeper through the literary looking glass.
On the surface, Claude’s story is a simple exploration of the house of a normal family, a craving for normalcy so natural to his boss-eyed friend/victim. Rapha’s parents pick him up from school, walk hand-in-hand, and live in a pleasantly suburban home of chicken wings and basketball. Empty-headedly, his mother Esther dreams up grand interior design schemes while Rapha Snr hatches money-making plots with businesses in China. But it’s not long before Claude gets bored coaching Rapha in maths, and soon starts to explore the house, its Klee drawings of Rettung, Unterbrechung and Hoffnung (watercolours just don’t add up in a middle-class home), Esther’s bathroom cabinet antidepressants, and even spies on Rapha’s parents making love. It’s not until he has Rapha commit suicide, following their kiss and Claude’s affair with Esther, that his implication in the family fiction becomes messy, and Germain is no longer sure where the truth lies.
Navigating through (feigned) guilt, desire and reader complicity, all dressed up in contemptuous irony, the reality behind Claude’s accounts of his infiltration into this ordinary family home become indistinguishable from fiction. Germain is drawn into Claude’s story, his journey into the fiction mirrored by our own, as we progress from the first chapter – read aloud, to the second – recreated in film, and the third – open to criticism and revisions. By the fourth chapter, the narrative voice has been replaced by dialogue. And while Claude’s simple observer status within the Artole household suggests a reading of marginalised outsider, when Germain appears as a voyeur to Esther and Claude’s kiss, we know the layers of fiction are starting to collide. Seemingly infatuated, Claude writes a poem that goes off in Esther, the most bored woman in the world, like an atomic bomb.
But, as we telescope out of fiction, it appears Claude’s words are aimed at another target. Like Scheherazade seducing the sultan, Claude’s story is a masterpiece in manipulation, laying a trail of breadcrumbs with his flirtatious series of to-be-continueds that lead to Germain’s seduction. It’s a queer sting in the tail of this otherwise straight story, with Claude’s journey to the end of night culminating in a barrage of domino endings and a final scene you couldn’t predict (but the only one imaginable) in which Germain and Claude sit on a bench watching illuminated flats in an apartment block, weaving fictions onto the lives of others. Together.
Like Ozon and his œuvre, Flaubert refuses to judge his characters. And like his cinematic predecessors, Claude may be an unlikable, manipulative cad, instilled with a chilling determination to get into the Germain household, but embodied by Ernst Umhauer, he’s still luminous enough to carve out a niche as the little god of youth and fiction to which Germain succumbs, and for which he leaves behind his previous life. Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas careen through the plot’s twists and turns with energetic nimbleness, while Ozon masters his maze of labyrinthine branches and back-doors with style. Dans La Maison may turn out to be little more than mid-life crises and teenage crushes, but it’s the smoke and mirrors here that steal the show. In The House isn’t designed to educate or edify, but there couldn’t be a funnier film to get lost in.
In The House is released on 29th March 2013 in the UK