The Review: Who’d be a writer? Certainly not me. Sure, I’ve been spewing out my thoughts on films for a shade under three years and I’d like to hope in that time I’ve not split too many infinitives or incorrectly used my tenses, but even when I churn out a 3,000 word feature I tend to have a very direct point of reference to start me off. There’s only a handful of things that would fill me with more trepidation and less pleasure than having to write an extended narrative of my own, but one of them would have to be marking others. I spend a fair chunk of my life coaching people through work or critiquing mostly more skilled and creative film makers in their various endeavours, but somehow teaching has never appealed. For those that do, churning through the faltering efforts of half-formed minds can’t be the only joy, but hopefully getting your kicks from reading the desperate scribblings of adolescence isn’t how too many teachers make it through the day.
It is sustaining Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a teacher at a French senior school, and the drudge of wading through another batch of student essays is only enlivened by the work of one of his class. New student Claude (Ernst Umhauer) writes of his obsession with a fellow student’s family and their family life, and his attempts to ingratiate himself into their lives. Germain, whose enthusiasm had waned to the point where he put no thought into his original topic, is now revitalised, giving private tutelage to Claude and while he shares the ever more provocative writing with his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), he’s less empathetic than he should be to her struggles with her failing art gallery job, and that’s just the start of what rapidly becomes an obsession.
For a film maker to turn his gaze back on his own narrative can be risky, and exploring the nature of writing and the creative process risks alienating the viewer if not handled well, but François Ozon has a solid track record in handling such matters. In The House creates a world of moral ambiguity within which its characters’ motivations are always reasonable, if not always rational, and events are allowed to spiral gently out of control (or further into control, depending on your perspective). While the genitalia and breast themed artworks on the wall of Jeanne’s gallery suggests that absence of morality becoming more prevalent in contemporary society, the motivations of Germain and Claude are more timeless and satisfyingly shaded in grey. The script by succeeds in having its cake and eating it, cocking its nose at trite genre conventions while successfully weaving them into the plot.
In The House thrives on its relationships: between Germain and Jeanne, the couple whose relationship becomes defined by their reactions to Claude’s work; between Germain and Claude, as the line between fact and fiction blurs and the definition of their pupil and mentor relationship blurs with it; and between Claude and the mother of the family at the centre of his writings, Esther (Emmanualle Seigner), defying the age gap between the two to give an additional layer of uncertainty and ambiguity. These relationships are all sold by uniformly excellent performances from the cast, especially newcomer Unhauer, and it’s a step up from the almost forced frivolity of Ozon’s last film, Potiche. There’s just a couple of unfortunate notes, including the insistence on every French film featuring Kristin Scott Thomas feeling the need in some way to draw attention to her English roots (here a reference to Yorkshire), and the ending, an extra portion of cake too much in the having-and-eating-of-cake. But if I had to mark the efforts of Ozon and his cast, they’d be looking at a solid grade this time around. (See below for actual grade.)
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a gentle humour at work at times, and visually Ozon doesn’t shy away from composing arresting images, especially (for all its faults) the final shot.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language and sex and a scene of [SPOILER REDACTED]. Come on, BBFC, I know it’s not a huge spoiler, but even so it does happen in the final act. Wasn’t there another way to say that? It’s also one of those 15 rated films that really wouldn’t require much trimming to get it to a 12A or less. However, if you do head to the link, do be sure to check out the last paragraph of the Insight information, and its comically matter-of-fact descriptions of the artwork on display in Kristin’s gallery near the start.
My cinema experience: Most of my foreign language diet of film is normally taken in at local Picturehouses, but on this occasion the Cineworld in Cambridge obviously felt there wasn’t much else out and added a week’s worth of showings. Sometimes you pay for what you get, and while I don’t normally experience any issues with projection at the Cineworld chain, on this occasion there appeared two be two or three drop-outs of a few seconds in the audio. It also seems that the subtitled nature of the work took at least two other audience members by surprise; as the credits rolled I heard a simple exclamation of, “so that was a French film, then.”
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Keen to maximise the potential of an audience who may not have realised they were in for a foreign language film, a long procession of resolutely English trailers meant a total of 28 minutes before we were actually in the house, so to speak.
The Score: 8/10