“IN THE HOUSE” is an intelligent and cleverly gripping tale of obsession, voyeurism and creativity (which director Francois Ozon, who did the deductive “Swimming Pool”, would have us see as linked). Fabrice Luchini is Germain, who, like all the adults in the film is depressed and frustrated. He’s a teacher who, one day, sets his rowdy, generally uninterested class a project, to write about what they did that weekend. As he is reading out, sneeringly, to his wife (the ever outstanding Kristin Scott Thomas) excerpts of the expected rubbish his students hand in, he comes across a well-written story from Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a boy who sits silently at the back of the class.
Claude’s story tells of how, attracted by the middle class smell of the mother and the seemingly perfect bourgeois world of Rapha Artole, one of his classmates, he begins to insinuate himself into the life of the family. The short two page observation of what either actually happened or was fantasized as having happened, ends with the words, “To be continued”
Germaine and his wife Jeanne (Kristin) are gripped and, in order both to encourage a talented student and, like any reader of a tale, to find out what comes next, Germaine urges Claude to keep on writing. The boy becomes the Scheherazade to the Germaine’s, as his on-going story seduces them into its narrative spell, and like any good story, transports them away from their banal lives into the vicarious thrill of living through the lives of others – in this case, the lives of the Artole’s, Claude’s surrogate family/artistic creation.
We too follow, gripped by Claude’s evolving lust for Esther Artole (Emmanuelle Seigner as Rapha’s mother) which, as a manifestation of a sixteen year old boy’s obvious fantasy, may or may not have actually been consummated. Beyond this centerpiece of shape shifting creativity (as Germaine comments and offers suggestions, so does the story change) multiple other stories – layers of reality – emerge.
Jeanne’s story is of her failing art gallery (her major exhibition features pornographic blow up female nudes with the faces of dictators, symbolizing the dictatorship of sex, even as Claude begins his sexual conquest and as Jeanne questions her husband’s own sexuality) and may represent the failure of her own marriage.
Rapha Artoile Sr’s story hints at the immanence of his nervous breakdown, driven to distraction as he is, by an intrusive, disrespectful boss from China (paralleled in Jeanne’s gallery’s second major exhibition – featuring a pretentious Chinese artist).
Esther, Rapha’s wife is, like Germaine, an unfulfilled artist, but is initially made out, by Claude who we increasingly realize is an untrustworthy storyteller, to be simply a bored and vacuous housewife preoccupied with nothing grander than home improvement.
In other words, Claude presents us with one story, but through misdirection, we see multiple others.
“In the House” is at its heart therefore about how reality is observed and about how art enhances the acuity of our own powers of observation. For the centerpiece story (essentially the reality of a young man’s lust for an older woman) contains deeper truths despite itself, enabling us to observe and appreciate the less romanticized realities of the slowly destroying lives of the characters we meet in the film.
Only the French could give us a drama like this – wordily talking about art and its role in our lives, filled with existential angst and celebrating the beauty of women well past their Hollywood golden years.