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

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

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 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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