It is a testament to the talent and vision of François Ozon that he remains one of the most underappreciated directors in contemporary French cinema. Indeed, while some people work incredibly hard in an effort to be taken seriously, Ozon seems to work incredibly hard at being deemed frivolous. A film school graduate who spent his teenage years producing wonderfully biting short films with a Super 8 camera, Ozon’s films are filled with an unapologetic love of sun, sex and celebrity that tends to go down very poorly with people who believe that suffering and death are the hallmarks of intelligent filmmaking. As with his joyously transgressive debut Sitcom and his most recent international success the unapologetically camp Potiche, Ozon’s In The House is an absolutely brilliant idea that doesn’t quite sustain an entire film but while the final act may be too clever by at least two thirds, few filmmakers can rival Ozon when it comes to creating memorable cinematic moments.
The film opens on concrete monstrosity that presents itself as a French high school. Within the school is Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a man who dreamed of producing great literature but wound up teaching it instead. To say that Germain is bitter would be something of an understatement; his only joy in life appears to be complaining about the stupidity of his students to his equally snooty and equally clueless wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). However, Germain’s protective bubble of irony is shattered when a student named Claude (Ernst Umhauer) hands in a witheringly sarcastic autobiographical essay describing a recent visit to a classmate’s house. Initially, Germain takes it upon himself to encourage Claude as the boy obviously has talent. However, the more stories Claude tells about his encounters with the classmate’s family, the more Germain becomes addicted to the narrative and the more his ‘teaching’ come to resemble the demands of a captive audience: More romance! More characterisation! More conflict! In essence, the film is a commentary on the relationship between creators and consumers and the way that people use art as a way of exploring dangerous and uncomfortable topics from a safe distance.
The film begins to shift when Germain points out that Claude needs to put his audience under pressure if he is to keep their attention. Given that Claude is supposedly only writing for Germain, Claude takes this advice as a warning that the teacher-student relationship might come to an end unless Claude keeps delivering the voyeuristic goods. Taking the teacher at his word, Claude begins raising the stakes by first turning his withering sarcasm on the teacher himself and then making decisions with consequences that are felt at school the following day. However, while Ozon does an absolutely brilliant job of raising the stakes along with the tension levels, In The House soon begins to struggle as people lose jobs and marriages break up but without the impression that things are actually going anywhere. In fact, the film explicitly acknowledges these third act difficulties by having Claude wander around in search of ‘his ending’ only to find that none of them ever really work. Though certainly clever, this type of intertextual play is never as satisfying as real narrative closure and so it feels as though the film simply loses focus and wanders off despite its bare faced protestations that the lack of closure is not only intentional but also meaningful.
One way of looking at In The House is to say that it features a more restrained approach to the shaggy postmodernism of Charlie Kaufman. For example, as with Being John Malkovich, the characters in this film blur the lines between the real and the fictional. Similarly, as with Synecdoche New York, the entirety of In The House feels like an intentionally doomed attempt at capturing the entire creative process in a single unwieldy metaphor. The problem is that Kaufman realises that the cleverness of postmodernism is inherently less satisfying than the emotional payload of a sweeping narrative arc and so he builds these huge metaphorical structures in an effort to replace emotional closure with a sense of wonder. Ozon’s comparative restraint means that, unlike many of Kaufman’s projects, In The House works as a proper story right up until the end but it seems entirely reasonable to suggest that ending the film on a flight of postmodern fantasy would have been more effective than Ozon’s discontented trudge.
Minor aesthetic quibbles aside; In The House is wonderfully tense, brilliantly funny, devilishly clever, and features wonderful turns by some of French cinema’s leading talents. Also brilliant are the extras, which include deleted scenes, bloopers and a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary showing how Ozon works with his actors.