“In the House” is a wicked little French fable about the power of art in general and storytelling in particular.
So urbane, in fact, does Francois Ozon’s French language movie seem in its narrative ironies that you would think that for the time being it could stand, quite nicely, as a classroom exhibit of French irony. It was, though, based on a work by Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, another of whose plays is based on the true story of a German concentration camp in World War II that was actually investigated by designated “authorities” and cleared of all suspicion of mass murder. Mayorga, clearly, is a man fond of tales told to idiots (or, at least people capable of acting like idiots).
“In the House” is about an excruciatingly bored high school literature teacher (Fabrice Luchini) who is suddenly confronted with a student who can actually write.
For a first assignment where he asked his students to narrate the events of their weekend (“worst class I’ve ever had in my life,” he complains to his wife about kids who return to him tales of pizza and teenage nothingness), he is given an essay by a student (Ernst Umhauer) who watches a “perfect” family from the park who lives in a house many times bigger than his own. It is the house where a fellow student lives with his parents. It is also a house where the student/watcher openly plots to eventually insinuate himself as his duncey schoolmate’s math tutor.
“To be continued” is how that first essay ends.
Far more impressed than he’s able to let on, the teacher reads the essay aloud to his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is struggling to run an art gallery and keep it afloat.
Did I tell you the name of the school? It’s the “Lycee Gustave Flaubert.” There’s an awful lot of narrative play in this movie. And, believe me, we’re only beginning.
What happens is that the student’s essays become more and more involving for both his teacher and his teacher’s spouse – so much so that it is clear to everyone that they are as much manipulation as anything else.
And when those stories indeed do inveigle the teacher to cross the line and violate his profession, just for the sake of finding out what happens next in the story, this little fable about the power of storytelling is in full swing. In its own way, it’s telling us why people watch “The Good Wife” and “Mad Men” on Sunday nights.
We in the audience know that, from that point in the movie, almost anything is possible – love, death, sex, heaven only knows.
“In the House” is very, very clever, though, about how it goes about its business. It all stays as plausible as possible within its completely implausible structure. Our story here is about the nature of stories themselves. We’re being told about a manipulative student who hooks his teacher and his wife into the student’s tales of voyeurism, manipulation and the power of lies that everyone should be able to see through – but can’t.
Soon the student is telling tales of spying on husband/wife conversations “in the house.” He’s hearing about things no 16-year-old has any business knowing about a friend’s parents. He’s investigating their medicine cabinet and finding its tell-tale contents (Xanax, for instance).
The student’s readers – his teacher and his wife – are following it all and coming to their own conclusions. The teacher’s pedagogical “input” becomes his way of altering the story, i.e. changing the lives of his other student and his loving but struggling parents.
The constant smirk on the narrator’s face is pretty much the way the entire story is told, too, by Ozon, which gives it all a malicious tang.
A nice sidelight to this ultra-European movie, by the way, is how much the men in the family, under such malicious scrutiny, like watching NBA basketball on their television sets. They are, get this now, Memphis Grizzlies fans.
The ending of the film is very much the ending of Ozon, a storyteller (“The Swimming Pool,” “8 Women”) who clearly has a storyteller’s faith in the purity in his art.
I wish, frankly, at the end it had exhibited more of the anarchic sting of the young boy who has, far too early in life, discovered just how immensely, indeed maliciously, powerful a story can be.
To be continued.
IN THE HOUSE
Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emannuelle Seigner, Ernst Umhauer
Director: Francois Ozon
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: R for profanity and some nudity and sex.
The Lowdown: A high school literature teacher and his wife become increasingly involved in the continuing story in his best student’s essays. In French with subtitles.