Flitting nimbly between confectionary comedies and dark dramas, François Ozon is too busy playing with and subverting genre conventions to ever risk being labelled an auteur. His latest film goes so far as to constantly query its intended audience and in provoking these questions (without necessarily providing answers), the fanciful Frenchman has made his first bona fide masterpiece. Oozing hilarious, barbed satire, it's a picture that mocks and delights in the indiscreet charmlessness of the bourgeoisie.
An atom bomb of verse metaphor and manipulation is dropped into the house of a jaded creative writing professor Germain (Fabrice Luchini, perfect as a past his prime teacher in both dress and disposition) who becomes obsessed with the riveting dialogue and exciting scenarios imagined by model student Claude (Ernst Umhauer). Everyday after school, Claude goes home with a fellow student to a working class household with tacky middle class aspirations, using these visits as material for his assignments. Germain is captivated by this mocking peephole which permits him to see how the other class lives, and it's not long before he's taking these stories home and reading them to his pretentious wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, in her best French-speaking role yet), the owner of shock art gallery 'The Minotaur's Labyrinth' whose current show "The Dictatorship of Sex" looks like your average porn shop.
Like her husband, Jeanne is soon taking pleasure in guiltily laughing at them and we at her. Within these layers of voyeurism, Claude parodies his readers (and viewers) as much as the characters he's writing about.
As a satire of clueless class misconception, Claude writes the Artole family as the most suspect stereotypes and still, the professor – with an inflated sense of his own academic prowess – fails to notice how the family's behaviour is cartoonishly American. The gym teacher father who dresses like a US high school coach talks of "hitting the shower", makes six-shooter gestures with his fingers, is forever ordering pizza and devotes himself to basketball. It's an impossibly unrealistic caricature with too many absurd twists to be taken seriously, yet German and Jeanne's fevered voyeurism is such that it too is indulged, with a knowing Bernard Herrmann pastiche courtesy of composer Philippe Rombi.
Real or not, these domestic misadventures are a reawakening for the one time author, wanting to teach his student about life and a way of viewing the world through improved literary technique. Spending more and more time with one another, Germain begins to see Claude as his vicarious ticket to the big time. Needling editorially to the point of co-authorship, Germain wants Claude to be published and succeed where he did not. Much of their talk about the particulars of the art of writing are cleverly complimented by the meta-narrative staging; having teacher and student walking inside, around and commenting upon the story they're creating as we watch various drafts being acted out. Furthermore, it's a film that benefits from being subtitled in unexpected ways. "Reading" the film, you get the feel of line beats and paragraph breaks, just as if you'd picked it up as a book.
A commentary on how and why we tell stories, and who we tell them for, in Ozon's strangely dextrous and dense career, this is top tier stuff. Undoubtedly his best film yet.
Timothy E. RAW talks to In the House writer-director François Ozon about the film and his career.
Our thanks to eOne Momentum for authorising the use of the film clips.