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François Ozon’s Dans la Maison (In the House) makes for an interesting companion piece to his Swimming Pool. Both films are highly meta, both are about the process of storytelling, and both highlight the tenuous relationship between what makes a good story and What Really Happened. Based on these films, and on Ozon’s career as a filmmaker, his loyalties lie with the former – which is an attitude I very happily endorse.
Dans la Maison is a cheeky variation on the tale of Sheherazade: Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a jaded teacher in late middle age finds himself becoming first intrigued and then well and truly hooked on the essays of the one student of his that shows promise as a writer, in a sea of bored, uninterested pupils that would give even mediocrity a bad name. Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who appears to come from a less privileged background, recounts in a waspish tone how he insinuates himself into the decidedly middle-class home of a classmate, eyeing the seemingly happy family – and especially the attractive though fading mother – like an underage Tom Ripley. The very first of these essays ends in a teasing, even flirtatious “A suivre…” – To Be Continued.
Surely, it is no accident that the teacher’s name echoes that of another fictional middle-aged man who enters decidedly murky ethical waters in an ongoing affair-of-sorts with a teenager – but Germain is no Humbert and his student is no precocious twelve-year-old. The seduction we witness is done by means of storytelling, and while Germain says, and may even believe, that he’s letting Claude continue his story and his infiltration of the titular house only to help him become a better writer, it is only in part the intimate but controlling act of teaching that motivates him. Germain is hooked on the illicit voyeurism of observing this middle-class family through the eyes of a transgressing young man whose attitude is partly desire, partly envy and partly disdain of what he sees.
In writing what he observes, Claude shapes both his material and his audience, and as the film proceeds it becomes increasingly less clear to what extent his story swerves from what he actually sees and hears towards pure fabulation. Germain prompts these changes by criticising the story Claude tells – too ironic, too predictable, too melodramatic – but it remains ambiguous whether these critical notes are indeed genuine feedback or the desperate attempts of a captive audience to maintain at least the illusion of control. Claude seems to defer to his teacher’s criticism, but he may just be giving the man what he’s asking for so he can snare him all the better. Germain wants the story to meet his standards of good fiction, yet he also wants it to be true, and the more the former is the case, the more he believes what he reads.
It’s a shame that while Ozon gets the relationship between Claude and Germain precisely right, he falters when it comes to the teacher and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). No doubt, there are interesting elements there: Germain is a snob who patronises his wife with respect to her fear that she may lose her job as an art gallerist, and he is oblivious of the growing rift between the two of them as he clearly favours his pupil’s fiction over the art she works with, showing off the former to her while dismissing the latter. Late in the film, Claude insinuates himself into Germain’s life, apartment and marriage, much as he inserted himself into his classmate’s family, and again it is not clear where fiction ends and reality begins – but in these elements Dans la Maison remains underdeveloped. While there is a coda that is strangely serene, reconciliatory and sad in equal measure, a fitting end for the characters and the story, what precedes it feels like a first draft, something that hints at ideas and themes but fails to develop them fully. Claude’s final story, about him and Jeanne, feels too sketchy and rushed to warrant Germain’s extreme reaction, and the teacher’s final confrontation with his wife falls uneasily between the stools of relationship drama and French bedroom farce. It’s a shame: the film falters especially because what surrounds its resolution is sharp, smart and has the necessary lightness of touch. In this, too, it makes for a good companion piece to Swimming Pool. Regardless of the film’s third-act problems, Dans la Maison shows that Ozon still has the wit for playful meta, and I’ll gladly consider myself a willing audience to this particular Sheherazade.