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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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