September 15, 2012


Francois Ozon’s IN THE HOUSE is a delicious examination of the pleasures and dangers of addictive narrative.  Storytelling (and corresponding tricks of cinematic structure) has been an interest of Ozon’s throughout his career, in films like Sitcom, Swimming Pool, 5×2 and Angel, and here he approaches the subject from a new angle.

The setting is a French suburb, where bored high school literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) can barely stand to read his students’ compositions about their weekends.  Then he comes across an essay by Claude (Ernst Umhauer) that isn’t routine at all.  Claude writes about his obsession with classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and his determination to befriend Rapha and get inside the boy’s perfect house and experience the relationship beteween Rapha and his parents.  According to the story, he’s become Rapha’s math tutor for this very purpose, and he’s exercised his fascination by exploring the house while Rapha is busy, and encountering Rapha’s mother Esther (Emanuelle Seigner).  Is the story truth or fiction, or a mixture of both?  It doesn’t matter to Germain, who’s hooked by the time he sees the boy has ended his essay with “To Be Continued.”

Scheherazade is invoked in Ozon’s script (based on a play by Juan Mayorga), and for good reason.  Germain becomes as fixated on Germain and his stories as Claude is (or merely claims to be?) with Rapha and his family, and before long Germain has gotten his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) avidly reading the stories too.  Installment by installment, they raptly join Claude as he continues to explore Rapha’s hosue, both physically and emotionally, affecting the equilibrium of all those who live there.  Eventually, Germain becomes so greedy for the stories to continue that he starts crossing over the line in his own relationship with his student, and it begins to affect him both professionally and in his marriage.

In the House does a superb job of racheting up the coolly uncomfortable suspense as we, very like Germain ourselves, wonder what Claude’s real intentions are.  Is Claude dangerous?  Is he making it all up?  And how far will Germain go to keep the stories coming?  We begin to lose our bearings between storytelling and reality.  We detect undercurrents, sexual and otherwise, in Claude’s tales, but since we only see the stories as Claude tells them, we don’t know whether they’re factually accurate or part of his fabrication, and if the latter, what he’s really after

If anything, In the House is the rare movie that could have gotten away with more drama than it ultimately provides; its only letdown is that after getting us to a point where we fully expect some kind of awful final explosion, its climax, while sensible, is relatively mild.  Until then, though, it’s a marvelous Russian doll of narratives within narratives, each step conveyed by a possibly untrustworthy narrator.

Ozon keeps his material under very tight and effective control.  The script doesn’t overdo either its complications or its structural devices, and the acting by Luchini as the increasingly desperate Germain and Umhauer as the unreadable Claude is excellent.  In the House is a small, beautifully layered work of narrative art.



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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."