December 20, 2014
A rear window peek into people’s lives
For the Herald
Cinema is at core a voyeuristic experience, a world of curious eyes where we all turn into peeping Toms, from the filmmakers’ gaze to the viewers’ scrutiny. We spy, they spy, everybody spies and there’s a certain delight in it – sprinkled with a drop of perversion, perhaps.
François Ozon’s Dans la maison (In the House) is, no doubt, a great film and the director also deserves accolades for his free adaptation of Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy in the Last Row. Parting from a voyeuristic game, Ozon plays it masterfully, plotting away his film and tracing the avatars of the creative process while also resorting to an element of fusion: we often spy for creative purposes and, when recreating that stolen knowledge, we can start telling a never-ending story — in Ozon’s case, filming a story to the point of infinity and beyond.
Houses as homes are the perfect setting of all horrors in Ozon’s world, something to which he has accustomed us from his previous films, with a sometimes ironic outlook — and other times, no quite so ironic — of bourgeois life, of middle-class affairs, of contemporary art, certain pseudo-progressive notions about education and teaching. As for the latter, it might arguably be a source of self-parody for Ozon, whose parents were themselves teachers.
Homes are sometimes inhabited by couples and these couples have children who go to school where they have teachers who in turn have partners and spouses and homes but sometimes have no children of their own. They might have students though who have colleagues with mothers and fathers and homes and gardens and so on.
This is the setting of Ozon’s story, which happens to be the story of a middle-aged, conservative, married high-school teacher with classic tastes who has lost interest in teaching and lives with the longstanding burden of being a failed writer. It’s also the story of one of his students, an unknown enfant terrible wannabe of whom little information is spared until the end of the film. And thirdly, this is the story of the strange, wicked and adventurous relationship which starts blossoming when the teacher, plodding through the tedium of reading his students’ efforts of putting into writing their weekend activities, discovers the literary penchant of this boy and decides to lend him his support and encouragement to have him carry on a narrative where the student will shape and change the reality of his characters, remaking it into the apparent film of their lives.
Dans la maison is a film with notable, solid male acting, with the successful tandem Fabrice Luchini – Ernst Umhauer providing superb performances as the teacher and the boy. Kristin Scott Thomas also stands apart as the wife of the jaded teacher, in the role of a contemporary art gallery director who joins her husband in his interest for the boy’s written adventures. Emmanuelle Seigner, flawless as always, in the role of the boy’s object of desire and mother of a fellow high-school student.
Ozon’s Dans la maison is a filmic feat and a sight to behold — and to contemplate — which entertains while allowing the viewer to ponder. Films tell stories, they are a storytelling machine and that’s what Ozon’s work is about: how to tell a story, how to create a character, what tones to choose, how to draw the denouement, how to pick the gender, and so on. The sharp-witted filmmaker immerses his viewers in this fiction, trapping them and transforming them into characters as well as peeping Tom spectators who must create their meanings and come up with their own ending for the story’s unreality that turns into reality through the magic lens of Ozon’s camera and through his extraordinary ability to deploy and manipulate the playfully perverse device of storytelling.
It is impossible not to draw a similarity between Dans la maison and Hitchcock’s Rear Window (which was an adaptation by John Michael Hayes from Cornell Woolrich’s brilliant short story), due to the building sense of suspense between the film’s characters and imparted by the director on the viewers in that masterful symbiotic approach, as well as the voyeuristic delight — which may not be a Hitchcockian ruse although it definitely was one of its highest expressions. Much has been discussed about this approach and there’s nothing bad or new about it, especially if we stop to consider that Dans la maison premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, 2012, and that it has circled the world’s theatres since then.
What can be said, though, is that it’s never too late for what is good — which is what this film is, truly good. Go see it, let yourself become a peeping Tom and let yourself become entranced and utterly captivated.
Dans la maison. Written and directed by François Ozon. Produced by Eric and Nicolas Altmayer. Director of photography: Jérôme Almeras. Editing: Laure Gardette Original Score: Philippe Rombi Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner, Denis Ménochet, Bastien Ughetto. Running time: 105 minutes.