Reviewed: In the House directed by François Ozon

Here’s looking at you, kid.

In the House (15)
dir: François Ozon

With In the House, his 13th feature in 14 years, the variable but never dull director François Ozon has made his most purely satisfying film. It’s a sophisticated comic thriller about the pleasures and perils of storytelling. To a plot with shades of Rear Window, Ozon has added class tensions and some clever asides on the sacrifices and responsibilities of art. To watch it is to be simultaneously seduced and interrogated.

Germain is a middle-aged literature teacher at a suburban secondary school. When I tell you that he is bored and jaded, and fumes about philistine pupils who respond to a “How I Spent my Weekend” assignment with paragraphs about junk food and video games, you must bear in mind that he is played by Fabrice Luchini, France’s wittiest actor and a man capable of expressing infinite varieties of weary scorn. But In the House gives him cause to display also a boyish glee. When Germain discovers a potential literary genius among his new intake in the form of Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a pretty, sly-eyed 16-year-old, he is nearly breathless with joy. The boy has written an essay about his efforts to ingratiate himself with a classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), whose bourgeois lifestyle he envies, whose home he has infiltrated and whose mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) he desires. As Germain reads this aloud to his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), Jérôme Alméras’s camera creeps closer to the couple. Philippe Rombi’s sad-sinister score grows restless, even titillated. Germain and Jeanne are on tenterhooks. Claude’s bulletin from inside the house ends “To be continued . . .” but they want more. We know the feeling.

Germain is in a quandary. He must encourage the boy’s talent without endorsing his duplicity. And yet he wants to know how the story proceeds. Like any reader or viewer, he is a sucker for a juicy yarn. He organises a regular private class with Claude, ostensibly to nurture his writing but also to push forward this particular narrative. The most selfreflexive scenes here show teacher and pupil analysing what we’ve been watching, as though tutoring us in our appreciation of the film, but the tone is tangy rather than academic. “Are you writing what you see or transforming it?” Germain asks, forcing Claude to recognise his role as a manipulator. If a draft doesn’t ring true, he urges a rewrite. (We get to see both versions, like alternative takes of a movie.) When the romantic imbroglios in Claude’s writing become tangled, Germain splutters: “This is a bad farce!” On the matter of endings, his advice is that the reader should be left saying: “I didn’t expect that. But it couldn’t end any other way.” For a lesser director, that line might have been a hostage to fortune. For Ozon, it becomes another rule to bend.

He has explored previously the collapsible boundaries between art and life, most obviously in Swimming Pool, his psychological thriller about a crime novelist on holiday. But not since his 1999 masterpiece Under the Sand has he made such an elegantly controlled work. The structure alone of In the House is a thing of multilayered beauty: as Germain becomes addicted to Claude’s essays, it dawns on us that we’re getting our kicks watching him getting his kicks reading about Claude getting his kicks. That’s three layers of voyeurism, three sets of peeping Toms. The doorways in the family home are high and wide like proscenium arches, giving those scenes the air of a stage production mounted by Claude for an audience of one. (Ozon’s screenplay is adapted loosely from a play, Juan Mayorga’s The Boy in the Back Row.) Narrative conventions are relaxed until the screenplay starts to mirror the open-plan school, with its transparent spaces and lack of parameters. Germain begins strolling unseen through the scenarios Claude describes, like Woody Allen and Diane Keaton dropping in on their younger selves in Annie Hall. Soon the boy is weaving the teacher and his wife into the story, giving them access to private observations made about them by strangers. It’s only a matter of time before somebody breaks the fourth wall.

Despite this constant buzz of postmodern playfulness, In the House never sacrifices its thriller credentials. Its suspense stays rooted in the psychologically credible, such as the classroom scene in which Germain draws the oblivious Rapha recklessly into this drama of Claude’s making. But the picture also has Ozon’s characteristic lightness of touch, not least in the fizzy banter between Luchini and Scott Thomas; they’re so good together that I found myself hoping they might get their own spin-off film or sitcom, even as Claude’s writing shines a merciless light on their imperfect marriage.

Here and elsewhere, the movie’s point is crisply made. Art can be hazardous: handle with care.

A still from "In the House".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle