Thursday, April 18, 2013

The House with a Thousand Windows

 In the House/ Dans La Maison (2012) - Ozon
With In the House, François Ozon, best known for his Hitchcockian, genre-twisting little psychological thrillers (Under the Sand, Swimming Pool), offers up one of his best films in years. It is clear from the beginning, with the title sequence on a school notebook and as Fabrice Luchini's jaded High School Literature teacher cynically commenting on a new rule on school uniforms at the first day of school that something deliciously sinister is brewing.

Germain (Fabrice Luchini) notices Claude (Ernst Umhauer)'s writing while correcting mountains of his students' weekly assignment. It's the 16-year old's description of his friend's mom that catches his eye, "that unmistakable odor of a middle-class woman," which stands out among the sea of mindless scribbles about cell phones and pizzas. He reads on and sees potential. His interest is piqued. After reading more of Claude's 'observations', Germain is hooked. He zeros in on the boy, tutoring and egging him on to go on his writing about his friend's 'perfect family', even if it means the story becoming increasingly, uncomfortably voyeuristic. Claude gains an access to the family and the house in the pretense of tutoring his friend Rafa on math. This 'perfect family' consists of Rafa, an affable, ordinary kid, Rafa Sr. (Denis Ménochet), a macho man obsessed with sports and everything China and Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), an alluring but bored housewife. Claude strategically advances on and pulls back from the family under Germain's instructions. Is Germain precariously living his desires and unfulfilled ambition through his young pupil? What's his endgame?

As usual, Ozon's layered, sophisticated pulp is impossible to resist. It pulls you right in with the promise of voyeuristic pleasure. But just like Julie in Swimming Pool, it's young Claude who becomes an unreliable narrator. He starts out seemingly as an innocent pupil, writing up everything he sees to please his teacher. The thing is, we know nothing about Claude: we never see his house nor his parents. Ozon teases us with the notion of what's fiction and what's real. As the 'spying' goes along, it's incensed Germain who loses control and helplessly falls victim to the narrative he helps to create.

The acting is superb all around. Luchini's usual self-absorbed upper-class nebbishness is a perfect fit for the role of a failed writer/depressed High School teacher. Kristin Scott Thomas is just as immaculate as Germain's superficial wife who manages an art gallery that displays dictator themed blow-up sex dolls and penis swastikas. The newcomer Ernst Umhauer shines as fresh-faced Claude who can turn the tables on manipulative and overbearing Germain and go mano-a-mano with him on storytelling.

It is very hard to do a comedy about writing well. In the House takes on classic storytelling how Spike Jonze's Adaptation took on screenwriting, without cheeky showmanship or self-referential cleverness. It is seductive, witty and deliciously naughty piece of filmmaking.

In the House opens on April 19 in New York and LA followed by national release.

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