I wrote my thesis as an undergraduate on the works of Philip Roth and spent my senior year alone in a single dorm room, battering my head against the thin membrane between the imagined and the factual. In an interview with Paris Review conducted in 1984 while Roth relegated himself to a cottage in York finishing The Anatomy Lesson, the author is asked what it feels like when he becomes his favorite literary creation, Nathan Zuckerman. Roth responds, “Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift… To compound the impersonation, to barb the edge… Making fake biography, false history, concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life.” Roth’s work is riddled with imagined possibility, conflict and resolution and sex and death trading places with one another at the caprice of the author creating a new page.
François Ozon’s new film In the House transposes Roth’s predilection for creating and destroying wet dreams onto the innocuous backdrop of a prep school in suburban France. The story concerns the fictional narrative shards created by lone high school writing savant Claude (Ernst Unhauer) and the interpretation of his story by his archetypal failed-writer-cynic teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini, Paris, Molière). The fiction in question revolves around a bland, Grizzlies-loving French family (Tony Parker would be pissed) consisting of a dolt son guilefully befriended by Claude, an idiot father obsessed with China, and an “intoxicatingly middle-class woman” as the mother, played by Emmanuelle Seigner (La Vie en Rose). The characters, both in their actual incarnations within the film and in their reinterpretations through the destructive mind of Claude, serve as the ephemeral structural beams supporting a plot that refuses to reveal its true intentions to the audience until the last ten minutes of the film.
Ozon’s power over In the House derives from his ability to confuse the audience between the real and imagined events within the film and how they meld through the progression of the story. The blur is a gradual event, intangible at the onset of the discussions between Claude and Germain. The viewer’s perception of Claude’s relationship with Rapha and his family warps alongside Germain’s consuming obsession with Claude’s imaginings. Eventually, the boundary between the stories and the story falters and the characters are left to scramble alongside the audience attempting to make sense of the onslaught of events. In the House feels like an exercise in the possibilities of fiction that arrives at the best possible conclusion Ozon could have come to with this premise. While the characters occasionally feel like the hackneyed standards of the gifted-yet-troubled student film, the masterful weaving between disparate narratives into a mind-numbing tour through the possibilities of fiction makes In the House Ozon’s best work since Swimming Pool.