Imagine Rear Window, but instead of a photographer confined to a wheelchair and peeping on his neighbors while concocting various scenarios in head, make him a high school student with a flair for writing who not only infiltrates the neighbor’s sanctuary but becomes friends with them and writes about them for his creative writing class. Then add to the mix a high school creative writing teacher who at first advises the young student, then becomes so involved with the student’s writings about the family that he begins to lose perspective and treats it like some sort of soap opera….
In the House (Dans la maison) is the new movie from writer-director Francois Ozon. It’s a tricky little bauble that plays like a thriller written by Charlie Kaufman, but with a playful tone that is much more Kaufman than Hitchcock. Germain, the failed author turned literature teacher played with wonderful haughty frustration by Fabrice Luchini, tasks his students to write an essay about what they did over the weekend. As he reads the inane and barely literate essays, he comes across one that displays actual talent. The essay is by Claude Garcia, a quiet loner played by Ernst Umhauer.
It’s about the time he’s spent with the family of a fellow student named Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). The attention to detail that Claude demonstrates while describing the hulkish father (Denis Menochet) and bored mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) of this stereotypically middle-class family excites and troubles the former writer; excites him with the display of raw talent, troubles him with his snarky and haughty tone. And the way Claude ends the essay with “To Be Continued…” only teases the teacher into wanting even more.
So Germain mentors Claude after school, giving him books to read and instructing him to continue writing about Rapha’s family. Germain even shares the essays with his wife, an art dealer played by the always welcome Kristin Scott Thomas, who has serious reservations about the essays and their author, but can’t stop reading them nonetheless.
At first, Germain advises Claude to write with a little more empathy. But it’s when Germain starts giving notes about what each of the “characters” in the essay would and wouldn’t do that the writings, and the movie, starts to become tricky. Germain and Claude have left literary voyeurism and started acting like it’s some kind of interactive reality show. And when the writer becomes attracted to the mother and she starts to return his affections?… And what if we can no longer completely trust that Claude is telling us is the truth anymore?
In the House reminded me Adaptation, the Charlie Kaufman (and yes, Donald Kaufman) scripted and Spike Jonze directed hall-of-mirrors about Charlie’s failed attempt at adapting Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but in a minor key; it’s done with a greater degree of realism and interest in character. In the House doesn’t so entertainingly fly off the meta rails like Adaptation did in its third act, and that’s part of its problem.
The movie sets up this exotic little contraption but then doesn’t know how to resolve it. It’s like a joke without a punchline. In the House is entertaining, but I just wish Ozon would have taken it’s idea of sacrificing other people’s emotional well-being for the sake of literary accomplishment a little further.