In the House: Toronto Review

Toronto In The House Still - H 2012
With typically dark playfulness, Francois Ozon considers the student-teacher relationship and the uses of fiction as a key to accessing other lives.

French director Francois Ozon delivers a psychologically intriguing drama about a jaded high school teacher caught up in his student's twisted semi-fiction.

TORONTO – In Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool, a parched crime writer’s creativity is reinvigorated by her proximity to a sexually uninhibited younger woman. A less carnal male twist on that dynamic sparks the director's seductive new film, In the House (Dans la maison), which is perhaps his strongest work since the 2003 drama. This time the older figure is a joyless schoolteacher and failed novelist whose vicarious involvement in a gifted student’s reality-based fiction reawakens his senses until the scenario gets out of hand.

Freely adapted by Ozon from Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s The Boy in the Last Row, this is a delicious, teasing reflection on mentoring, the creative process and the very nature of fiction, with its ability to conjure alternate lives and more fulfilling identities for both author and reader. It may be a touch too muted and ambiguous in its payoff for some audiences, but it’s charged with the same flavorful air of dangerous sensuality and subversive humor that first put its French writer-director on the map.

A literature teacher at the pointedly named Gustave Flaubert Lyceum, Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is beyond despair over his grammatically impeded students’ refusal to engage. So when, as a written assignment, Claude (Ernst Umhauer) turns in a meticulously detailed account of his weekend that’s as psychologically intriguing as it is ethically troubling, Germain is hooked.

It's the first of many such essays, and each of Claude’s installments ends with the phrase “to be continued.” Initially reserved in his encouragement, Germain begins prodding the student in more daring directions, urging the youth to love his characters.

Claude’s serialized soap opera actually revolves around the “normal” middle-class family of his fellow student Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), a source of envy and desire. With the symbolic weight of their home underlined in the film’s title, production designer Arnaud de Moleron has given the family a tidy two-story cottage fit for a suburban fairy tale. Nestled on a patch of perfect green lawn, it’s shot by Jerome Almeras with caressing elegance. This imagery becomes even more significant when, late in the film, a glimpse of Claude’s contrasting domestic situation is finally revealed.

As is often the case with Ozon, hints of homoeroticism ripple through the scenes between the young writer and both Germain and Rapha, a dim bulb being tutored in math by Claude. When Rapha reads an essay in class ruminating on whether Claude has overtaken his jolly father, Rapha Sr. (Denis Menochet), as his best friend, the kid’s self-exposure is agonizing.

Claude – played by Umhauer with an ingratiating openness that could be calculated or innocent – works his charms on everyone as he infiltrates the family. But the real object he covets is Rapha’s exquisitely bored mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner, gorgeous), who floats through the house wearing pretty floral-print dresses, the quintessential Euro-MILF. When the story acquires darker, more sexual overtones, Germain raises his eyebrows and asks, “What is this, Pasolini?” Even without the question, however, the echoes of Teorema are clear.

As we watch each new episode unfold, Germain shares the chapters with his frustrated wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, in fine acerbic form). The manager-curator of an art gallery whose job is in jeopardy, she becomes an equally avid reader. Some of the visual jokes concerning Jeanne’s questionable taste in contemporary art are heavy-handed, but they serve to underline the gulf dividing her from classicist Germain, which Claude also picks up on and exploits.

A puzzle-like element infuses the film as both teacher and student exert their influence on the narrative taking shape, with Germain physically intruding on the fiction to comment at key points. While the line between imagination and reality is continually blurred, it’s clear in the cruel final developments that ultimate control always rests with the writer. But Ozon refuses to make Claude irredeemable or to negate the mutual rewards of their exchange.

Philippe Rombi’s lush orchestral score sometimes indicates otherwise, but relatively little of any great dramatic substance happens – at least not in the definitively real version of the story. The pleasure of the film is the ways in which Ozon finds tension in Claude’s interaction with the family and with Germain, who makes some reckless choices. The very ordinariness of the family’s existence is rendered exotic through Claude’s eyes, fueling a sustained sense of mystery as to where things are headed.

Doing a complete switch from his more comic roles and his obnoxious character in Ozon’s Potiche, Luchini plays a richly contradictory figure here. Part poignant sad sack, part uptight prig and part exploitative predator, his participation in Claude’s story becoming almost maniacally voyeuristic. Under the director’s firm hand, the entire cast does incisive work.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation; Cohen Media Group)

Production companies: Mandarin Cinema, FOZ, France 2 Cinema, Mars Films

Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner, Denis Menochet, Ernst Umhauer, Bastien Ughetto, Jean-Francois Balmer, Yolande Moreau, Catherine Davenier

Director-screenwriter: Francois Ozon, freely adapted from the play “The Boy in the Last Row,” by Juan Mayorga

Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer

Director of photography: Jerome Almeras

Production designer: Arnaud de Moleron

Music: Philippe Rombi

Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne

Editor: Laure Gardette

Sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 105 minutes