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

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit