Based on The Boy in the Back Row by Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga, Francois Ozon’s latest is something of a return to form for the former enfant terrible and a deliciously witty story about storytelling.
Weary literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) finds a diamond in the rough in Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who shows real flair in a writing assignment set by Germain. Despite being asked by Germain to simply write about what he did that weekend Claude manages to turn a few hundred words into a fascinating glimpse into the private life of the family of one of his school friends and in doing so weave the beginnings of a very absorbing story. The one page story ends with the line “to be continued…”, which helps, along with the deviously generated content, to immediately hook in Germain, his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) who he reads it to, and most importantly the wider audience, us.
The story on the page continues, aided by ‘re-enactments’ that illustrate the prose, and the effect that this story has on Germain and Jeanne is significant. In one of the film’s funniest scenes Germain even goes to the lengths of stealing the answers on a maths test from a fellow teacher simply to facilitate the continuation of Claude’s story. And it’s easy to see why. The story Claude writes is gripping, devilishly satirical, witty and hugely entertaining and so to is Ozon’s film.
As the film progresses the lines between truth and fiction become obscured, and the distance of Germain from the written story and the ‘real’ story becomes almost non-existent. Once Germain begins appearing in the re-enactments it’s clear that he is lost and the only conclusion to this story is one involving his own downward spiral.
Despite a sense of inevitability at times Ozon does an extraordinarily good job of laying out the story in a way that slowly reveals twists and sustains the mystery without ever going off the rails even a little, something he seems to have struggled with in similar efforts in the past.
Thanks to the storytelling thematic obsessions that the film dives head-first into the addition of literary and cinematic references and a number of amusing fine details ensure that In the House is a dense enough film that it rises above simply being a twisty, entertaining tale. Lines such as “What is this, Pasolini?” – a clear nod to Teorema in particular – and the use of Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night as weapon that begins a character’s existential descent, work so extraordinarily well due in part to some smart writing from Mayorga and Ozon but also because the film is ultimately about the way these very books and films work.
Also clearly taking cues from the likes of Hitchcock and Polanski, Ozon pulls off something rather special with In the House in managing to not look lacking when considered in the same breath as these cinematic titans. A script with razor sharp wit, effective and unobtrusive direction and fine performances from the key leads all help ensure this is one of, if not the finest of Ozon’s films to date.
In the House is released in UK cinemas on March 29th