Thursday, November 06, 2014

169. French director François Ozon’s French film “Dans la maison” (In the House) (2012): Second Ozon film on creative writing, this time adapting a superb Spanish play

François Ozon seems to be fascinated by what makes writers tick. And he loves to prod the viewer to reconsider his/her mental evaluation of fiction and reality as they watch his later films.

Many viewers are likely to initially consider the superb tale of In the House to be solely Ozon’s creative work; it is not. In the House appears to be almost totally leaning on the product of a contemporary Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga titled The Boy in the Last Row, if one goes by the reviews of the play. It is, thus, not a coincidence that the French film went on to win the well-deserved Golden Shell (the grand prize) and the Jury prize for Best Screenplay at the San Sebastian film Festival in Spain. Then why is the film important, if almost all the credit rests with the play on which the film is built? This is because Ozon forces any intelligent viewer to evaluate himself/herself as they progress with the viewing of his film beyond the film’s tale. Is the viewer being cajoled to infer more than what the movie actually informs us?  Is the viewer a voyeur, wanting to see more than what the film offers? Those are Ozon’s questions thrown at us by cinematically adapting the play.

However, the Spanish play proved to be a perfect extension of the very ideas director Ozon presented in his previous movie The Swimming Pool (2003).  In The Swimming Pool, a film based on a story written by Emmanuèle Bernheim, director Ozon presented a riveting thriller, complete with dashes of murder and sex, which was essentially an essay on how a creative fiction writer (Charlotte Rampling)  gets and develops ideas to write her novels, while jolting the viewer to realize at the end of the film that what they read in books (or see and hear on screen) need not be true and that a clever writer can manipulate your mind to make you believe it is indeed true until the end, when you comprehend the real truth.

It is to the credit of director Ozon that he chose to film Mayorga’s play, which logically extends the cinematic argument presented by director Ozon in The Swimming Pool. Mayorga’s play is also about the creative writing process, laid out in a greater and more entertaining detail than in the previous film; with an important additional question relating to morality asked of the viewer. Does the creative process need to be merely smart or does it have to combine moral/social values?  Ozon never dealt with morality in The Swimming Pool but he does that to a certain extent in In the House.

Creative writing: Teacher Germaine Germaine (Luchini)
and student Claude (Umhauer)
In the House is a tale of a young, intelligent male school student, Claude already good at mathematics, who occupies the last rows in his class (the detail referenced in the title of the play), trying out his skills in creative writing in a literature class. Playwright Mayorga is erudite and one assumes is familiar with Vladimir Nabokov’s book Lolita, which has a literature professor double-named Humbert Humbert, who gets obsessed with his step-daughter nicknamed Lolita.  Playwright Mayorga alludes to Nabokov’s work by creating a literary teacher named Germaine Germaine (the viewer gets to see the teacher’s full double name on the cover of his very unsuccessful published book, in the Ozon movie). It’s not just Ozon and Mayorga who are taken in by Nabokov’s novel, even the maestro Stanley Kubrick decided to film Nabokov’s Lolita. Germaine Germaine  is not the only oblique literary reference in this film. They are scattered all over. The name of the French school in the movie is Lycee Gustave Flaubert and the teacher Germaine Germaine (Fabrice Luchini) refers to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel that prevails on the reader not to quickly judge characters presented in it, while introducing the work to his students. (Madame Bovary was also the inspiration for Robert Bolt’s script of David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter, made in 1970, initially trashed by critics who were ironically too quick to judge what it offered.) The school-teacher’s wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) knocks down her husband in the film with a hardbound copy of Celine’s novel Journey to the End of the Night, quoted at the start of Sorrentino’s recent movie The Great Beauty (2013). The choice of the book is not an accident. Knowledge of international literature can provide additional entertainment for the viewer by enjoying the trenchant remarks of various characters in the movie/play.

The teacher (Luchini) and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas),
who reads and comments on student Claude's creative writing

The film/play, like Nabokov’s character's name Humbert Humbert, presents and discusses on screen two fathers, two wives, two mothers (one on screen, the other off-screen). and a pair of twins, who own an art gallery, The position the young schoolboy Claude (Ernst Umhauer) occupies in his class is the last row—and visually ironically enough his teacher Germaine Germaine also occupies the last row during an internal teachers’ meeting in the school to discuss school uniforms. Both pupil and teacher are astute observers and thinkers at their individual levels, both sitting on benches in classrooms/schools or in open parks. Both are critical of the middle class to which they themselves belong. The last shot of the film is of both teacher and pupil sitting on the same bench, observing lives of people they have never met.  Ozon’s cinematic rhetorical unspoken question at the end of movie is who is the teacher? Ozon dissects the creative process of writing and storytelling for the viewer. The answers do not lie in the film; the resolution of the conflicts rests with us the viewers. Is the sharing of an apple by a woman and a boy symbolically innocent or not so innocent?

The film/play is a tongue in cheek look at the growing power of TV soap operas which keep viewers dangling on the edge at the end of each episode, convinced and reassured the tale is to be continued in the next, and thus ensnaring the viewer to watch the next episode.  People need stories like the ones Scheherazade narrated keeping her Sultan asking for more tales for 1001 Arabian nights. The creative writing process not merely ensnares the reader/viewer but also involves the creation of a good ending. The teacher of creative literary writing explains to his pupil that a good ending is one that is “necessary, unpredictable, inevitable and surprising.”  Director Ozon does just that by providing such endings in both his films: The Swimming Pool and In the House.

Real or unreal 'barbaric invasion:" Claude (Umhauer) appears to sleep
 between his classmate's parents.
Claude appears to look at the camera/viewer. while
his shadow seems to be looking at his classmate's mother
 (Emmanuelle Seigner)

In the House is ironically about the beguiling”barbaric invasion” of smart students in the school classrooms taking on unsuspecting teachers and extending that invasion to unsuspecting middle class-households with the knowledge of a well-meaning teacher who stokes the embers of creativity in his student not able to decide if his student’s entry into another student’s house is “like an angel or a vampire.” The play/film goes on to compare the allure of mathematics (that “never disappoints”) with that of creative writing (or literature).

The closing shot of the teacher and his pupil

Director Ozon presents a very entertaining and complex film that even prompts Germaine Germaine to wonder if his student Claude’s literary work that keeps his readers transfixed and amazed is close to an imaginary Pier Paolo Pasolini film when Claude is kissed by his male classmate Rapha Jr., while Claude is actually attracted instead to Rapha’s mother (Emmanuele Seigner), in whom he sees his own physically absent mother.  On the flip side, Germaine Germaine’s wife Jeanne wonders if her husband is turning homosexual with his increasing interest in his male student, while her husband actually sees in Claude a son he never had with his wife Jeanne.  Perception and reality are compared at every stage in the film. Who is the Svengali, the literature teacher who is a failed author or his bright student with real raw talent?

It is a film that explores the world of academia recalling Joseph Losey’s and Harold Pinter’s acerbic treatment of the middle class in Accident (1967).  Ozon’s In the House is a film like Accident, which makes a viewer evaluate himself/herself, while presenting a delightful and a surprising ending with endearing performances from an ensemble cast.

For keen Ozon watchers, it would be interesting if he does go on to make a third feature film on the subject to complete a triptych that began with The Swimming Pool and followed up with In the House.

(This review was earlier published on 5 Nov 2014 at )

P.S. Losey's Accident and Lean's Ryan's Daughter were reviewed earlier on this blog.

P.P.S. The two lead actresses Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuele Seigner had previously worked together in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992), coincidentally a tale about a failed author narrating a tale that could have made a great book. Polanski's film was an adaptation of a novel by the celebrated French 'New Philosopher' Pascal Bruckner.