In The White Album, Joan Didion wrote that we “tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and, with the cheeky dark comedy In the House, bad-boy French auteur François Ozon flips that idea and sets out to confront characters whose lives, and the lives of those they spin yarns around, are twisted by the truth-seeking and illusion-creating narratives they obsess over. Ozon is known as a prolific pop filmmaker who’s guilty of his own grandiose flights of fancy (Ricky) and unreliable narrators (Swimming Pool), and surveying his camp-and-melodrama-filled oeuvre, it’s only natural that he would attempt to depict voyeurism and literature as a form of both life force and desperation. Despite the film’s murky and turbulent underbelly, Ozon is more interested in creating a puzzle rather than solving one, and he maintains a bright and stylish veneer throughout his own tales of blurred fiction and reality.
Having spent the summer reading Schopenhauer, pompous high school literature and composition teacher Germaine (Fabrice Luchini) greets the new school year with a pessimistic attitude concerning the state of education. Growing further disillusioned by yet another class of underachieving adolescents incapable of writing a cohesive essay about their summer, Germaine marks up every paper with red ink and sarcastic remarks—except one. Written by a shy, blond boy who always sits in the back of the class, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), the prose strikes Germaine due to its fluidity, confidence, and curiously pointed observation gleaned from a visit to a classmate’s home. “What’s a perfect family’s house like?” Claude writes, surveying the smells and society-proscribed roles of an archetypal French middle-class family.
Although hypocritically troubled by the condescending tone of the essay, Germaine believes Claude has talent, and soon the man is lending the boy classic novels and privately providing editorial feedback, as Claude turns in each new assignment as a serial installment of his narrative—which mostly includes a sardonic view of pizza, basketball, and a bored housewife. Claude’s drafts, which are visualized for the audience as Germaine rapidly reads each new episode, grow more intrusive and subversive—yet Germaine still possesses a curious hunger to hear more of the Claude’s stories. But is the boy actually pursuing the provocative actions toward the family he describes, or is it all storytelling folly? Germaine’s wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), a curator at a contemporary art gallery, is fascinated and consequently troubled by her husband’s interest in Claude’s prose. They were once an erudite couple who traded barbs during a flippant discussion of whether art and literature actually teaches us about life, but now Jeanne is feeling distance: “All you care about is that family.”
If Claude impishly takes aim at the functional banality of a middle-class family, Ozon snidely targets the bourgeois institutions—literature, contemporary art—we let define our lives and the way we see the world. And, like Claude, Ozon wants you to have fun as he toys with your mind, layering on an unyielding amount of suspicious occurrences and meta-textual developments that lead to an entropic denouement. Ozon champions the construction of his script over the plausibility of his characters, making In the House more of a successful experiment than a scintillating portrait; the cast does their best at humanizing their roles, but with all its winks and nudges (once Germaine explains that Claude must add conflict to his story, tensions occur), it remains a unique view of the writing process yet takes the sting out of the potentially devastating statement regarding humanity’s gullible reliance on stories. It’s buoyant and titillates, striking that distinctly Ozonian balance between the beautiful and the sinister, but it doesn’t resonate. Despite its cerebral subtext, In the House is more head-spinning than heady.