“In The House”: in the company of Francois Ozon’s women

Francois Ozon has created a body of work that features some unique film worlds: the pastel-colored past of “Potiche”, the soap-opera world of singing actresses in “8 Women”, and many films where the real and imaginary walk hand-in-hand!  His films break the “fourth wall”, challenging the audience to accept the unexpected.  One of things audiences can expect: strong roles for women performed by some of the biggest names in French cinema.

In “Swimming Pool” and “Potiche”, the narrative is driven by Charlotte Rampling and Catherine Deneuve. Charlotte Rampling’s character re-discovers her sexuality while embroiled in a mystery involving a young woman (played by the luminous Ludvine Sagnier).  Catherine Deneuve’s character in “Potiche” takes over the family business, resolves a crisis, and discovers romance.  Both films feature women taking control of their lives and expressing their desires.

“In The House” continues that tradition with Kristin Scott-Thomas, the brilliant British actor who lives in France and speaks fluent French, and with Emmanuelle Seigner (“La Vie en Rose”). They, too, exist in the Ozon film universe of fractured realities. The film opens with the voice and view of a young voyeur, Claude, attempting to win the affections of a family.  Ernst Unhauer portrays Claude as an intelligent but troubled teen; yearning for a place within what he perceives as an idealized family.  He describes his classmate waiting for his parents after school.  His classmate is embraced by them and yet feels no shame in this public display.  Claude clearly desires this closeness but, at the same time, seems to want to destroy it.  He describes, with teenage arrogance, his classmate’s mother as “listlessly thumbing through House Beautiful magazines while lounging on the couch”.  Esther, (Emmanuelle Seigner), is set-up as the bored and passive suburban housewife…

As Claude’s Literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Lachine) reads his essay and becomes intrigued “by the scent of the suburban woman” — but also by his young student who shows some promise as a writer.  His wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott-Thomas), is immediately suspicious.  She sympathizes with the Mother, who is being objectified by both men, and senses an unhealthy fascination.  Her advice to discourage this willful young man in his writing goes unheeded.

Claude narrates, as his writing comes to life on the screen — but is it this his version of events, or is it reality?  He writes about this family, not as a class assignment, but as if he is obsessed by them.  Germain encourages him and then starts behaving in erratic and unprofessional ways in an attempt to facilitate the writing of the essays he’s becoming increasingly addicted to.  The essays always end with “To be continued…”  He becomes so enmeshed in Claude’s intrigues that he even appears in the scenes interacting with the teen, and with his object of desire, the passive Esther.

Both women are shown reacting to their husbands.  Jeanne runs a contemporary art gallery but she is in danger of losing her business and often asks Germain for advice. She is also losing the affection and physical attentions of Germain.  She even invites the couple–whom they’ve grown to feel an uncomfortable intimacy with through Claude’s writing– to appear in the flesh at a gallery opening!  Unaware of the earlier angry confrontation between Germain and Claude’s father, Jeanne is both disappointed and distraught when Germain flees the gallery.

Esther is also dealing with her husband’s erratic behavior.  He is losing his job and Esther is shocked to learn that he behaved unprofessionally – and that he has committed a crime.  Stepping out of her passive role, she forces Claude to see that his romantic view is a fantasy.  He is forced back to his role as an outsider; no longer the threatening interloper.  Esther moves from being the object of desire — and passive — to actively creating a new life for herself and her family.

“In The House” is an interesting film with strong performances by the entire cast.  The female leads start the film in passive roles, reacting to the men in their lives.  By the film’s conclusion, both women ACT to take control of their lives.  When a crucial event described (and filmed) is revealed to be a vengeful fantasy, Germain (and the audience), must confront the powerful thrall that Claude’s story has cast.  Is it all just fiction?  And what price must be paid when reality intrudes and the consequences must be faced?  The final scene reveals Germain and Claude, alone, watching other people’s lives unfold before them.  Stranded and abandoned, they are relegated to the sidelines.

Rating: 3 glasses of French Chablis

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