03 April 2013

Make Yourself at Home

François Ozon sure loves his black humour, most recently seen in Potiche, with Catherine Deneuve playing the titular trophy wife, who manages to take her life back. Ozon's new film Dans la Maison (In the House) continues in much the same vein. Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is a French literature teacher at the Lycée Gustave Flaubert (natch) who, among the dregs of his year eleven class's homework assignments, spots something rare: the hint of an ability to write. The only trouble is that the author of the piece in question, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), has written an acutely observed, if voyeuristic and borderline offensive piece about the afternoon he spent with "a normal French family" — his classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and Rapha's parents Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Rapha Senior (Denis Ménochet). The piece is more than a little snarky — Claude remarks upon the "scent of the middle-class housewife" that lingers in one of the rooms —and although Germain is initially disturbed, he is also intrigued, especially as Claude signs off with the phrase, à suivre (to be continued).

Germain, whose sole published novel bombed, decides to mentor Claude and to help him to develop his writing skills, even though this entails Claude insinuating himself further within this normal family upon whom he has stumbled. The film soon starts to resemble Ruby Sparks, with both Germain and Claude discussing potential plot developments, which Claude then brings to life. Claude's writing also reminded me in its style of Cassandra, the protagonist of Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle — recording everyday, excitement-free life can be interesting if you write well enough. But how much of what Claude writes and what we see is in Claude's imagination? And far will he have to go to achieve the dramatic tension he desires? And is Germain putting himself at risk by helping a boy who treads a thin line between social commentator and evil genius?

Dans la Maison is clever, funny and, of course, very dark. The script is sharp (I was doing my best not to read the subtitles) and the characters interesting and complex. Although I thought Kristin Scott Thomas was excellent as Germain's wife and although her relationship with Germain is as important to the story as the relationship between Germain and Claude, I did feel that the sub-plot involving the art gallery that she runs detracted from the story somewhat, even if it did provide some comic relief. I thought Umhauer was also good as the charming but creepy young writer. The film reminded me of a number of other movies too, including Adaptation and Entre les Murs, and it's not short on its more intentional literary and cultural references — Jeanne Germain can't understand why her exhibition that combines porn and dictators isn't a huge success, for instance. No, not even in France, apparently...

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