Sunday, June 2, 2013

In the House (Dans La Maison)

IN THE HOUSE (Dans La Maison)     B+               
France  (105 mi)  2012  d:  François Ozon

While more lighthearted than the usual fare, Ozon has nonetheless crafted a smart and cleverly insightful comedy about the boredom and ennui of the middle class, a film that beautifully unravels though serial installments of an apparent neverending high school class writing assignment.  Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is the overly cynical and largely bored and disinterested literature teacher continually under the spell of Flaubert who has grown to hate the illiteracy of his students, coming to work with a giant chip on his shoulder, a pretentious know-it-all that continually degrades his students, where coming to work has become an exercise in futility.  As he’s reading some of his student’s papers to his wife, the engrossed listener is the perfectly respectable but utterly bourgeois Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who runs an art gallery owned by a pair of twins that have no interest in art and continually threaten to shut the place down.  The impression given is that this is a cultivated and sophisticated household, childless, no doubt, so that they could pursue their professional careers, where by now they have become accustomed to the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie, to coin a Buñuelian phrase.  As he reads examples of atrocious writing, one paper stands out and holds his wife (and the audience) in rapt attention, where a student describes his meticulously detailed plan to get inside the house of another fellow student, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), offering to help with his math homework while he secretly inspects the premises.  We surmise the writer lives in a tiny claustrophobic dwelling in a congested, overpopulated part of town, while this house, viewable from a park right across the street, represents the dream home in the eyes of the writer, with two loving parents who proudly show affection, even in front of adolescent kids, something rarely seen these days.  What gives this paper a kick is not only that it’s an engrossing story filled with shrewdly discerning observations, but that it concludes “to be continued.” 

Germain immediately pulls this kid aside, Claude (Ernst Umhauer, somewhat in the manner of Michael Cera), and inquires about his motives, as he rather subtly is painting a sarcastic character portrait that gets disturbingly deep into the personal affairs of a fellow student, which could have negative repercussions if asked to read aloud in class.  Claude was only following the class assignment, so he claims, before nonchalantly dropping off the next installment.  Germain waits until he gets home where he and his wife literally devour the story for details and personal insight, becoming a prominent part of their lives, like a movie-of-the-week, discussed right alongside the various pitfalls of their careers.  To be blunt, the story is much more intriguing than anything either one of them has going for themselves, and they eagerly look forward to the next episode. Germain works with the kid after class, critiquing his writing, his motivation, while offering various books to read from his own collection.  In his eyes, at least one student shows promise, and the least he can do as a teacher is encourage him to develop his craft, though we all know the real motive is to read the next continuing chapter, as the kid churns them out like daily editorials, something one can count on and look forward to on a regular basis, becoming the one constant in their lives, even as everything else is falling apart.  Ozon places the audience in the same position as this couple, where we’re deliciously eavesdropping into the intimate affairs of another household.  Germain continually suggests that he use his imagination and take his narrative elsewhere, but Claude insists the only place he’s inspired is inside that house, where his writing style amusingly starts to resemble the teacher’s recommendations, where his original comic satire evolves into personal obsession, perhaps more reflective of the teacher’s state of mind, but it only gets Claude deeper in trouble as he spies on Rapha’s parents having sex, among other things, developing a deep infatuation for the mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), always seen flipping through various house remodeling magazines, someone he calls “the most bored housewife in the world.”

While Rapha and his Dad (also named Rapha) express themselves only through the limited vocabulary of sports analogies, showing no imagination whatsoever outside of that boy world, Esther is often left out, where Claude sees himself swooping in and rescuing her from the emptiness surrounding her.  As the story evolves, which is little more than a writer’s exercise, Germain stresses fiction while Claude insists upon realism, as only real life provides such vivid details and clarity, where each of the characters is appropriately affected by the changing events as Ozon seamlessly weaves in and out of fiction and reality until eventually one can’t tell the difference.  All of this is really just teasing one’s imagination, where the storyline balances comic absurdity with ever evolving character development, but the longer Claude ventures inside the house, voraciously accumulating pertinent details, the closer he comes to crossing the line into morally objectionable territory, as he’s continually prying into dark corners.  Germain is so reliant upon the next installment, as if his life is utterly dependent upon it, that he also ventures into questionable human behavior in his attempts to do anything in order to keep the stories coming.  Of course, this is all something of a chamber farce, like being stuck inside your head—Buñuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1962) anyone?—where Claude simply can’t leave their house, or who knows what disaster might strike?  The original source material is Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga’s 2006 contemporary play, El Chico de la Última Fila (The Boy in the Last Row), which the director adapts for the screen.  All of the characters are interesting and well-developed, where Emmanuelle Seigner recalls Margaux Hemingway, where there’s an underlying sensuousness, but it’s much more suggested (in our heads!) than real, as she is little more than a bored housewife.  The emptiness of the middle class is constantly made fun of, not only in some of the tasteless art exhibits where Jeanne attempts to drum up interest, but especially in the vacuous world of the adults which offers little of value to the next generation, instead condescendingly cramming culture down their throats like some kind of force-fed regimen, failing to inspire or generate any hint of enthusiasm for the subject matter, where a random school paper incites much more interest than anything happening in their own dreary lives.  More fun than profound, nevertheless this is something of a charming delight, beautifully scored by Philippe Rombi, which has that pulsating underlying energy of Philip Glass.

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