How Fun it is to Spy on the Neighbours!

In the House (Dans la maison)
(France, 105 min.)
Written and directed by François Ozon
Starring: Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner, Bastien Ughetto, Denis Ménochet.
Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas star in In the House.
Photo courtesy Les Films Séville.
Spying on the neighbours might be the most fun a person can have without spending a dime. Take, for example, the harmless thrill of seeing a slightly deranged neighbour unpack a new load of flowers from his truck and then watch him get back in and accidently back up over the tubs of carnations. It’s wrong to watch and giggle as he kicks at the tires and swears at the dog, but it’s funny for all the wrong reasons. The same goes for deducing with a fellow barista that two coffee shop regulars are having an affair. It’s not hard to put two and two together when there’s a motel that charges by the quarter-hour within the sight line of the espresso machine. Prying eyes and gossip are what passes for fun in dull suburbia.

The undeniable guilty pleasure in people-watching receives masterful treatment in François Ozon’s latest release In the House (Dans la maison). In the House presents a whole school of voyeurs (like fish, they swim in packs) doing the creepy people-watching. The story begins when Germain, played by Fabrice Luchini in a fascinating performance, reads to his wife, Jeanne, played by the equally fascinating Kristin Scott Thomas, a brief writing assignment submitted by one of his pupils.

The story stands out amongst the bland, poorly written creative writing exercises turned in by the hack writers in Germain’s class. It’s a two-pager, well-written and engaging, versus other assignments that run nary a couplet. It has a real story to tell, as it playfully engrosses the teacher in its tale of afterschool perversion. As told in a first person account by a student named Claude (Ernst Umhauer, making a strong impression in this breakthrough role), the paper details the pleasure in spying on the family of his friend and classmate Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto). As Ozon swallows M. and Mme. Germain in a slow perverse zoom, In the House reels the audience into a deviant complicity with the two readers: it’s the kind of story that should be thrown in the trash, but we want to hear more. Claude knows the hook of his intriguing, if repulsive, tale, as he anticipates his teacher’s nosiness and concludes with the playful parenthesis of “(To be continued…).”

Jeanne, clear-headed and proper, suggests that Claude advise the student to stick to subject matter that is more appropriate in future assignments. The story is the kind of icky warning sign of which the school headmaster should be notified, but Germain, against all good logic and advice, admires the potential of this wordsmith and precious snowflake.

When class meets again to study literature with Germain at the aptly named Lycée Gustave Flaubert, Germain follows Jeanne’s reasoning and confronts Claude. Claude, disappointed that his teacher disapproves of his flair for storytelling, asks to submit the next assignment early. It’s an adjective exercise, which Germain and Jeanne read with disapproving relish. This new story fills in the yummy details that have been missing before. Claude also ups the ante in this tale and describes to the reader(s) his amusement with Rapha’s father, Rapha Sr. (played by Denis Ménochet, whom many viewers will recognize as M. LaPadite, the ill-fated dairy farmer in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds). A satirist, Claude dubs his classmate and the father “the Rapha Males”. Most juicy, though, is Claude’s obsession with Rapha’s sexy bored mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), and writes in adjective-laden detail his desire to caress her sweet middle-class inner thigh. Germain and Jeanne couldn’t find better bedtime reading at the drug store.

The premise of In the House instantly puts one at unease. This is a dirty tale about things that are meant to be kept private. What goes on in anyone’s house is the business of that family and that family alone. One can’t help, though, in wanting to infer using all the words and actions observed out of context. Neighbours, commoners, and average working class Joes are much more interesting if they have a double life.

Ozon consistently plays with the sordidness of In the House’s premise and teases the audience with the salaciousness of the story using some expertly handled tone. Adapting a play by Juan Mayorga, Ozon finds an unusual tale with which to blend the unnerving eroticism he’s created in films like Swimming Pool and Under the Sand with the quirky humour of films like 8 Women and Potiche. It’s surprisingly funny to watch as the bourgeois couple played by Luchini and Scott Thomas get their jollies off by reading Claude’s stories. The two leads have a Woody Allen-ish rapport as they lie back and extrapolate the details in Claude’s serial with hilariously intellectual banter. Ozon knows how uncomfortable this material can be and he uses humour both to create a farce out of this comedy of manners and to further the satire of the bored bourgeoisie. The energy of the stage-to-screen adaptation works to the film’s advantage, too, as the occasional lapse into claustrophobia makes palpable the couple’s desire to escape their mundane lives. The biting comedic timing of Ozon’s direction and the actors’ beat is perfectly matched by an ironically sprightly score by Philippe Rombi that finds folly in the most banal of situations.

Germain and Jeanne aren’t too far off from the Artoles about whom they read and ponder. The thrill of Claude’s stories reveals to the audience just how stale the marriage between the Germains is. The husband and wife seem to be going nowhere in their careers—he’s a failed writer who settled to be a teacher and she’s struggling to run an art gallery by selling trendy contemporary pseudo-art. The stories, then, provide Germain and Jeanne with a titillating window into their neighbours’ lives. They can escape their stalled marriage and project their troubles onto an equally boring family. It’s far more entertaining to create problems for others than it is to solve your own.

In the House accentuates this novelty quite thrillingly in the teacher-student relationship between Germain and Claude. Germain begins to tutor his pupil in private after the first few letters reveal Claude’s potential; however, there comes a point in In the House in which Claude inverts the power dynamics of the relationship and enjoys a playful manipulation of his elder. Germain is a bored wannabe novelist, after all, so it’s to his advantage to be schooled in the art of suspenseful storytelling.

Germain’s love for fiction becomes the central moral dilemma that makes In the House such an engrossing domestic comedy-thriller. He knows fully the unethical nature of coaxing a student to refine his skills by fictionalizing a family drama that centre’s upon said student’s bizarre infatuation with a schoolmate’s life. The escalating unseemliness of Claude’s stories takes Germain further past the point of no return, but each reveal prompts more appetite. Germain becomes so absorbed in the project that he fashions himself in the role of storyteller as Ozon blurs the line between the character’s grasp of fiction and reality, and invites him into the Artoles’ home as he watches his student fondle Esther’s bland floral print gowns. In the House strikes a perfect chord by matching the sense of impropriety with the Flaubert-ian hunger for an alternative. (As Little Children’s Sarah Peirce might say.) Blurring truth and literature, Germain uses Claude as a surrogate (or vice versa) to write a life that seems worth living.

Voyeurism hasn’t been this delicious since Jimmy Stewart trolled the apartments across the courtyard in Rear Window. The spot-on final shot of In the House gives an appropriate nod to the Hitchcockian admission that we like to watch. The dark underside of clean middle-class living has never been so entertaining thanks to the pitch-perfect work by the ensemble and the director nor has it been so open to admit that most of the dirty business we imagine simply exists in one’s own mind. The neighbours are actually as clean and as boring as they seem. Some of them are, anyways.

(To be continued…)

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

In the House is currently playing in Ottawa at The ByTowne.