In the House (Dans la maison), 105 mins, rated MA15+, opens 27 June 2013


(This is my review as published in the June issue of the NSW Law Society Journal)

The art of storytelling: it was the theme of the just-concluded Sydney Writers’ Festival, and it’s a popular subject for filmmakers.

Last October came The Words (Klugman & Sternthal), which explored a case of plagiarism by a failed writer (ironically for a film about words, the script left a lot to be desired). Then there was Seven Psychopaths (LSJ Nov 2012) about a scriptwriter with writers’ block. In September we will see Sarah Polley’s autobiographical documentary film Stories We Tell, in which she reveals a fascinating family secret, but at the same time examines the  ways we distort the truth in the telling. That’s a film not to miss – especially for lawyers who understand that versions of the “truth” may differ, depending who’s observing and what’s at stake.

This month, we have the French film In the House, directed by the prolific François Ozon (8 Women, 2002, Swimming Pool, 2003, Potiche, 2010). It’s a fascinating exploration of storytelling and writing, what it takes to be a writer, and the effect of the writer on the lives of others, including readers. It examines the creative process, and the voyeuristic nature of both writing and reading.

Germain (Fabrice Luchini from Potiche and The Women on the Sixth Floor, 2010) is a high-school literature teacher at the aptly named Lycée Gustave Flaubert. He is reading a series of dreadful essays by his students, when he comes across one that stops him in his tracks. The student, Claude, writes of charming his way into his friend’s house, and becoming increasingly close to his friend’s mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). Germain offers to help Claude improve his writing by means of private coaching. Claude’s talent may have refreshed Germain’s enthusiasm for teaching, but how much of this is renewed inspiration, and how much is due to a voyeuristic interest in Claude’s story of his developing relationship with his adopted family? As he becomes more morally compromised by his involvement in Claude’s life, how far will Germain go to enable the story to continue? And is Claude actually doing the things he describes, or is he making it all up?

Writers sometimes speak of their guilt – or at least discomfort – in cannibalizing the lives of their families and friends to give them working material, and in these days of receding privacy, there’s very little of our lives that we can keep to ourselves (the News of the World scandal illustrated that quite dramatically). But given the popularity of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and the proliferation of reality TV, the younger generations may not value privacy in the way that older people did. Maybe the concept is on the way out, although privacy advocates have the occasional win, as in SF v Shoalhaven City Council [2013] NSWADT 94, where Shoalhaven City Council was ordered to switch off its CCTV cameras in Nowra.

Serious issues are explored in In the House, but it’s also a lot of fun. Director Ozon pokes fun at new theories of education, and at contemporary art. He blurs the differences between “reality” (actually a story he’s telling) and fiction (the story Claude is writing). Viewers must stay on their toes to keep the layers of reality clear in their minds. Luckily we have a talented cast to guide us through. Apart from the great comedian Fabrice Luchini, and the lovely Emmanuelle Seigner (Frantic, 1988, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007) we have the always-wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas as Germain’s wife, Jeanne. Newcomer Ernst Umhauer impresses, too, as Claude.

The film looks good, often displaying the bright colours of a slightly heightened reality, common in Ozon’s films. Ozon is a student of the history of cinema, and there are clear references to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), and Vertigo (1958), both films about voyeurism. Ozon also invokes directors Woody Allen and Pier Paulo Pasolini. But the film seems to run out of steam as it reaches its end.  Like the writer in Seven Psychopaths, Ozon – and his fictional writer Claude – can’t decide how to end things. They try a few different options, but there’s no catharsis there, just a myriad of possibilities. So we, the viewers, are left to imagine our own ending.