François Ozon has always been a safe middle-class director of safe middle-class fantasies, which is the opening for an excoriating review whereby I dismiss all his work out of hand as being unworthy of your time, this film no less than any other. Or at least that’s one version of this review, an exceedingly unkind and somewhat unfair one at that. Certainly, it wasn’t a million miles from my impression of the first film of his I saw, Sitcom (1998), which busied itself with a then-fashionable media satire using as its milieu a middle-class French suburban family. I do think Ozon, and Dans la maison, has more to offer though, while still retaining some of his familiar themes.
For this film is primarily about the stories we tell, or the stories we are told, and (as I rather inelegantly tried to do above in my first sentence), it opens up questions about the truth of what we’re being told and asks us to consider whose viewpoint is being depicted. It concerns itself with Germain Germain (whose double name seems to allude to Humbert Humbert, only one of many misdirects — or are they? — in the film), an English teacher at a boys’ high school (Lycée Gustave Flaubert, the first of many literary references) and his relationship with one of his new pupils, Claude, who is a markedly better storyteller than his monosyllabic classmates. For his first class test, to just describe their weekend, Claude turns in a story of his insinuating himself into a fellow pupil’s family home, which is creepy enough. However, as this same story develops over further assignments, it twists and turns, abetted by Germain who has become increasingly involved in the unfolding story, into something rather more elaborate, and rather more mutable.
There’s clearly an element of the director making his self-reflexive film about filmmaking, but which of these characters is the director and which the actor is constantly in flux. Germain starts out as the teacher he plays, in front of the blackboard elucidating narrative ploys to Claude in one-on-one coaching sessions, but a later shot has him circling with the camera around Claude, and finally Claude is the one in front of the blackboard teaching Germain. Literary references abound as well, with the creation of a narrative always at the forefront, as scenes of Germain reading Claude’s essays to his wife (an excellent Kristin Scott Thomas) are framed by library bookshelves, in her art gallery, in the cinema. All these different influences and texts (those of the art catalogues are amusingly mocked at one point) that encircle the film’s storytelling also hint at different paths the central story of Claude and his school friend’s family might take. The fact that this film’s setup (like Ozon’s first film Sitcom) recalls Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) is even explicitly referenced by Germain, further muddying the extent to which the film’s events are ‘real’ or ‘authored’.
In a way, it’s this explicitness about the ‘constructedness’ of the film’s narrative that somewhat drains the tension in the way it plays out, as successive twists can be chalked up to another little flourish of the filmmaker’s art. It’s never less than entertaining, it should be said, with some tightly constructed scenes, as well as fine performances from Fabrice Luchini as Germain, Scott Thomas and the young man playing Claude (Ernst Umhauer). It just ultimately never seems to offer the threat to the bourgeoisie that it at times promises.
Director/Writer François Ozon (based on the play El chico de la última fila [The Boy in the Last Row] by Juan Mayorga); Cinematographer Jérôme Alméras; Starring Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas, Ernst Umhauer; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Tuesday 2 April 2013.