Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: "In the House"

Director: Francois Ozon
Runtime: 105 minutes

Despite functioning as a domestic thriller, there's something refreshing about the relative lightness of Francois Ozon's In the House. Recent acclaimed foreign imports have tended towards the heavier side. This February, Michael Haneke's Amour won the Foreign Language Film Oscar, and was preceded by Asghar Farhadi's A Separation. Both are excellent films, but they also take painfully honest looks at heavy subject matter. By contrast, In the House stands as a fun reminder that foreign imports need not all be emotionally exhausting in their excellence. 

Opening at the start of the school year at a French high school, In the House quickly introduces us to bored literature professor Germain (Fabrice Luchini). As his colleagues cheer an initiative to introduce uniforms to the school, Germain can only look on with reserved disdain. His sophomore class does little to inspire him either, regaling him with writing assignments detailing weekend events like eating pizza and losing a cell phone. Yet as Germain reads some of his papers aloud to his art curator wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), he stumbles upon the work of Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). Not only does Claude's story show actual effort, but it ends with a teasing "to be continued..." His interest piqued, Germain decides to help the quiet young man as he continues his observations, even as the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur.

Claude's observations center on his classmate Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), and his parents Rapha Sr. (Denis Menochet) and Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). Though he refers to them as "the perfect family," Claude's journals are quick to either gently mock the Artoles, or snidely point out the cracks in their facade. Rapha Sr. is struggling with problems at work, while Esther feels trapped as a housewife, constantly musing about everything from a grander home to abandoned career aspirations. Nearly all of this is relayed through extensive sequences that show us Claude's interactions with the Artoles, while Germain's dry voice over gives us the specifics of Claude's writing. 

And as much as In the House relies on simultaneously showing and telling its audience information, Ozon's screenplay never becomes bogged down with exposition. Loosely adapted from Juan Mayorga's play, Ozon's writing is infused with smart efficiency and an understated sense of black humor. For all of the film's satirical examinations of middle class life (Rapha's family and Germain's home alike), Ozon resists the temptation to become smug with his observations. Many similarly themed films sink themselves by trying too hard to be clever, both in plotting and in dialogue. In the House, under Ozon's assured direction, never has to strain to accomplish its goals, and glides along with ease. 

Just as assured is the work from the ensemble, which is filled with both returning Ozon players and new talent. At the head of the story is Luchini, who infuses all of his scenes with a quiet mix of sarcasm and desperation. It creates the feeling that, at any given moment, In the House could snap from satire to tragedy, and vice versa. Though Germain is ultimately the observer in the story, Luchini never allows the role to become purely passive. His obsession with guiding Claude's writing is the driving force behind the narrative, much to the film's benefit. Then there's newcomer Umhauer, who has the film's trickiest role, yet never creates a false moment. Umhauer's sly, even lustful, gazes could have been over-the-top, yet the young actor never turns Claude into a caricatured devil child. This is most evident in the film's last act, when Claude's control over Germain is broken, and the consequences of his actions emerge.

Backing the leading duo up are a string of solid turns, namely Scott Thomas' increasingly flustered Jeanne. Like several of the roles in In the House, Jeanne could have been turned into an over-the-top cartoon. Thankfully, Ozon and Scott Thomas stay comfortably in line with the film's tone, and turn Jeanne into an engaging foil for Germain. At times, you almost wish that the film would focus entirely on their relationship. And, though their characters are practically pawns for Claude, Seigner, Menochet, and Ughetto infuse the Artoles with a humanity that makes them more than the butt of Claude's writing. 

At the head of it all is Mr. Ozon, whose direction has a controlled and refined maturity that has clearly been the result of his last few films. Though still playful, the director has come a long way since lighter delights like the murder-mystery musical 8 Women. The characters here are more rounded, and treated more seriously. Even though the script doesn't directly engage with some of the characters' underlying conflicts (Claude's injured father, Germain's failed writing career), the interactions efficiently establish these people as more than pawns for Ozon to toy with. In the House does not aim for full-blown Greek tragedy in its later and darker scenes, but the (slightly rushed) last act does have genuine emotion coursing through its veins. Ozon may handle the emotions with a deft, light touch, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't take them seriously. 

Likewise, the film's musings on storytelling, specifically the relationship between creator and spectator, are handled briskly. In addition to his marvelous writing and control of tone, Ozon deserves to commended for his energetic (yet never frenetic) and tight pacing. Credit should also go to the simple-but-natural cinematography and energetic score for propelling the story along so beautifully. There's little to no rush, and certainly no drag. Rather than wallow in Germain's boredom (only found in the opening scene or so), In the House establishes its protagonist's state of mind, and then plunges the viewer into its carefully escalating tale. 

There's a seamlessness to the writing and directing that constantly keeps one on edge, without going overboard. The Ozon from a decade ago might have gone over-the-top in teasing the audience with the reality vs. fiction aspect of the story. Yet the new, more mature Ozon lets the story simply go along, uninterrupted by any sort of need to show off. Rather than display arrogance, the director has opted for a welcome slice of restrained confidence, both in himself and in his audience. That confidence is felt from the mundane opening, to the masterful final shot, one that cements In the House as one of 2013's best films, as well as one of the year's best surprises. 

Grade: A-

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