François Ozon’s In the House arouses helpless fascination one minute and extreme frustration the next. Here is a film that, in attempting to be a very cinematic commentary on creativity, inspiration, artistry, collaboration, and the act of storytelling, intentionally blurs the line between reality and fantasy, especially during the latter portions. There comes a point at which it’s no longer possible to tell fact from fiction; I would even go so far as to say that, by the end, I thought back on the entire film and was forced to question which scenes, if any, actually took place. The whole thing might have been nothing more than a 100-minute brainstorming session, the seeds of the story being planted one right after the other. The problem, of course, is that the germination is typically more rewarding than the sowing.
Adapted from Juan Mayogra’s Spanish stage play The Boy in the Last Row, the film centers on two characters, both with voids in their souls, both desperate for a way to fill them. First, we have Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), a sixteen-year-old student at a pilot school in France, where uniforms have been reintroduced. A lower-class kid carrying emotional scars from being abandoned by his mother and stuck with a vacant, handicapped father, he seeks out a typical middle-class family and systematically works to claim it as his own. He begins by befriending a boy named Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), a basketball fan who needs Claude to help him with his trigonometry homework. They will work together in Rapha’s house, where Claude meets Rapha’s father, Rapha Sr. (Denis Ménochet), a merchant fretting over his latest Chinese clients, and his mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), a bored housewife who does nothing but think of ways to renovate her house.
Claude describes the family in a series of written pieces, all of which are narrated, all of which end with the words “to be continued” in parentheses. It began as a writing assignment for his French class, which is taught by the film’s second central character. This would be Germain (Fabrice Luchini), an elitist with a published novel to his name and espouses classical literature with a fervor that borders on obsession. In Claude, he sees not only the son he never had, but also the writer he never was. He encourages Claude to continue the writing assignment by adding chapters, and the two form a collaborative relationship in which there’s no clear division between student and teacher. In private, they have discussions that uncannily transported me back to my days as a Creative Writing student, where my professors and classmates all had very definite ideas about how to improve the stories I wrote.
From the start, we know that Germain is just as obsessive as Claude. However, it isn’t until Germain helps Rapha cheat on his latest math test that we see the full extent of his obsession. He’s just as determined as Claude to ensure that the latter remains in Rapha’s life, which in turn will inspire Claude to continue writing. But the more time Claude spends with Rapha’s family, the more apparent it becomes that Claude has developed an oedipal attraction to Esther, one that’s making him lose control of his own story. Eventually, neither he nor the audience can separate his imagination from reality, a turn of events exacerbated by impossible scenes of Germain physically appearing in Claude’s illusory moments with Esther. It’s almost as if the real Claude is ceasing to be, while the fictionalized ideal of himself is taking over.
Germain shares each chapter of Claude’s writing with his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), every bit Germain’s intellectual equal but incompatible in how they define genuine creativity. She runs a financially-struggling gallery showcasing pieces of contemporary art, a field Germain has no understanding of or tolerance for. On the basis of the pieces we see, I’m inclined to agree with him; one exhibit combines sex with fascism, which is to say we will see a painting of a swastika formed out of human penises, a picture in which acts of oral sex form the communist hammer and sickle symbol, and blowup dolls that have their heads replaced with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Kim Jong-il. Claude will eventually meet Jeanne in person, irrevocably altering his personal relationship with Germain.
I can understand Jeanne’s encounter with Claude, as it does factor into the latter’s increasingly unstable writing fantasies. However, I’m at a loss to explain the significance of Jeanne’s art gallery, which may potentially be bought by identical twin sisters, nor do I understand the meaning behind the bizarre pieces of art she collects. This is supposed to a story about storytelling, and as such, Claude and Germain are the most important characters. I think the scene that best sums up In the House is the final one; I obviously won’t give anything away in terms of what happens or who takes part in it, but I will say that it perfectly demonstrates what makes the film both intriguing and infuriating, namely the power of the imagination. Is it not disturbing that some people are unable to see when it encroaches on reality?
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