Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 20, 2013 5:56 am 
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Voyeur auteur: Ozon gets his edge back

François Ozon's new film, not unusual for him, has elements of titillation and button-pushing. It focuses on the relationship between a teacher and his student, and the stir caused by the student's sneaking into a classmate's house and writing about what he sees there. According to Variety's Peter Debruge, the tale is "more inspired by than adapted from Juan Mayorga's play The Boy in the Last Row and is a "low-key thriller" that constitutes something of a "return to form" for the director, whose films had "lost their psychosexual edge" (Debruge again) when he discontinued his collaboration with Emmanuele Bernheim (with whom he did his big Statesisde success, Swimming Pool). He's got it back here, and this film deserves to be as much of a hit in US arthouses as Swimming Pool was.

In the House is smart, mildly intellectual, a little sexy, and full of surprises. The surprises are the best part, and they come out of the basic premise, which is amusing and ingenious and thought provoking. If they're worked out a little more superficially and repetitively and less profoundly than they might have been, that's not the end of the world, and should not surprise us. Even at his best, Ozon has his limitations. But when he's at his best, we share his giddy sense of fun.

The two chief characters could not be better. As the student, Claude Garcia, we have the suave, pretty young actor Ernst Umhauer, who has a rich, confident voice. As the French teacher of the lycée Gustave Flaubert, Germain, there is Fabrice Luchini, a self-referential role since Lucchini himself is known for stage performances of French literary classics, such as Germain gives to Claude to read. If this doesn't give Lucchini a chance to show off his usual flash and brio, this is still material that must have seemed more inward and personal to him than most. The secondary casting is unsurprising but right: Kristin Scott Thomas as Germain's art gallery manager wife Jeanne Germain, Emmanuelle Seigner as Esther Artole, the wife and mother, the "woman of the middle class" whose home Claude invades by befriending her son and whom he lusts after. The movie descends into comedy with Claude's "best friend," Rapha Artole fils (Bastien Ughetto), who is a little too goofy to take seriously, and the stocky, boyish Denis Ménochet, as Rapha Artole père, almost an appendage of Rapha junior.

Claude charms and transfixes Germain by submitting a paper about how he spent his weekend. Every other paper from the class is vapid and idiotic, but Claude's describes with a cunning irony how he gained admission into Rapha's house and observed his family by helping him with his math. The description is vivid, provocative, and tantalizing: it ends with "(to be continued)". From here on Germain is in thrall to Claude, ostensibly his instructor, but really his admirer (he published a mediocre romantic novel earlier in his life, but admits he lacks the talent to be a writer that he thinks Claude possesses).

In the House is playful and self-referential, a story about storytelling. As Germain gives Claude classics like Tolstoy and Flaubert to read, Claude keeps giving him his two-page narratives of voyeuristic scenes from life in the Artole house. Though Claude says he is not inventing and we see the stories enacted as they're told in Germain's or Claude's voice, there are also variations that come about when Germain says a certain incident isn't believable (even if it happened), and Claude's ability to walk in and out of scenes in the Artole house seems supernatural. Eventually Germain participates (see still).

As has happened before so often with Ozon some of the edge around this movie is made fuzzy because he doesn't take his material quite seriously enough, but this does nothing to undermine the "conceptual" feel of the action. And this feel is enhanced by the fact that Germain's wife Jeanne -- her Labyrinth of the Minataur Gallery owners (both played by Jana Bittnerova) themselves very high-concept -- deals in discreetly absurd conceptual art. All of which gets a further edge when a sexual element enters Claude's relations with not only Esther but Rapha junior.

If the incidents/actions recounted in Claude's succession of compositions become a little repetitive and redundant after a while and if Ozon doesn't seem to care all that much about where things end up, this is nonetheless delightful material, and it's a pleasure to see this filmmaker returned to form.

In the House/Dans la maison, 105 min., debuted at Toronto in Sept. 2012 and was in other festivals, including London, opening in France Oct. 10 (Allociné press rating 3.5, viewer rating 3.9). It was screened for this review as a part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center in collaboration with UniFrance, which runs Feb. 28-Mar. 10, 2013.

Limited US release began April 19, 2013.

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