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French cinéma reviews: Dans La Maison

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Another repetitive, regurgitated thriller with an oh so common theme. Oh, wait...it's not?... 

French Cinema Reviews: Dans La Maison

A bored French Literature teacher gets too close to a talented student; woe ensues…so far, so familiar. But whereas other films of this ilk, such as Notes on a Scandal or The Wave focus on questions of sexual and pedagogic impropriety respectively, Dans La Maison (In the House, in its English translation) is a thoughtfully joyful story about story-telling; a delicate thriller so wonderfully innocent, but simmering with méchanceté. Just how I like them.

Germain Germain (great name) starts the new academic year with a class of dunces, until one student - Claude - eschews a humdrum piece of homework in favour of a very intimate study of his classmate Rafa’s family. The seditious piece ends with a tantalising: “À suivre…” or “To be continued…” Germain is soon drawn into Claude’s tale, tutoring his young prodigy in the art of story-telling, but from that moment on we’re never entirely sure whether what we’re seeing is actually happening, or is just part of Claude’s story.

There are shades of The Imposter here - the five star documentary that follows Frederic Bourdin, the French conman who successfully impersonated Texan schoolboy Nicholas Barclay, missing since 1994. Despite Bourdin being the wrong age, speaking the wrong language, and having the wrong face, the new “Nicholas” is welcomed with knowing zeal by a blinkered Barclay family more intent on getting a son back than caring precisely which son it is they get. And Claude’s worming intrusion into both Rafa’s family and the heart of Germain is similarly welcomed. The warning signs of future disaster are there for all to see, like a new kid at school in a US horror, but each main character willingly ignores Claude’s lurking weirdness and in the process facilitate their own downfall. Serves them right, I hear you say?

Well, not really.

Dans La Maison...Before this all begins to sound incredibly sinister, there’s sympathetic humour to be had throughout – and British humour at that. Germain’s very name is Pythonesque, and a fight he has with his wife (played by English-actress-in-French-films par excellence Kristen Scott-Thomas) is unwaveringly slapstick. But Dans La Maison is funniest when dark: Rafa’s ridiculous face when he sees his mother kissing Claude; Germain’s wife delicately enquiring as to whether he isn’t a tiny bit of a gay paedophile; or when, during a generic exchange in an art gallery in which Germain professes that “nothing really shocks him”, the camera shows him stood between Mao-, Stalin- and Hitler-headed sex dolls. Indeed, despite the obvious there’s little French to be found in this film; the cinematography is generically international, the school pupils wear uniforms, even Kristen Scott-Thomas’ accent is deliberately anglicised. And yet, for all this apparent Englishness the film topped the average takings in France in its opening weekend, beating out Taken 2, Ted and French septuagenarian-soccer-sensation Les Seigneurs.

This is in no small part down to the universally strong performances, with Fabrice Lucchini’s Germain hitting every note of a run-of-the-mill teacher, and Ernts Umnauer’s Claude vacillating wonderfully between the menacing teenager trope and an endearing kid just looking for a role model. But Ozon’s script is also surprisingly strong; despite the unshakeable sense that you’ve seen it all before – probably because you definitely have seen this story before – there are enough novel touches to keep you gripped.

However, the inherent problem with all stories about stories remains; the underpinning tale has to be phenomenal to justify the hype. Invariably, this isn’t the case. Look at Capote or Barton Fink. Monty Python’s ‘Funniest Joke in the World’ sketch does everything except tell us the fatally funny joke. When feted screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was commissioned to adapt The Orchid Thief he instead came up with Adaptation – a self-referential masterpiece, but one that shrouds the central story in a second one about Kaufman’s struggle to adapt the source material, because on its own it wasn’t interesting enough to sustain audience focus. Dans La Maison plays a similar trick as we never get the entirety of Claude’s story. The boy can turn a nice phrase here and there (something unfortunately tempered in the subtitles) but without being trusted with his whole story the audience never fully buys in to Claude’s prodigious talent like Germain does. Nevertheless, those with even a modicum of literary gen will no doubt enjoy the references to de la Fontaine, Flaubert, and Aristotelian dramatic theory however toe-breakingly name-dropped.
Whatever flaws there are in the story, the direction is top dollar; the above reference to Kaufman is apt here, but whereas Kaufman’s films make you feel stupid in their towering creativity, Dans La Maison makes you feel clever not so much because the story is wildly original, but because it’s open enough to allow us to interpret without being so open as to invite absurd cineaste readings.

The ending is a prime example of this. As Germain tells Claude in one of their tutorials: “The story has to end in a way that surprises the audience, but at the same time couldn’t end in any other way.”  What we’re given is a perfectly plausible and satisfying ending if taken at face value, but if read into – and there is always room to read into this film – there is a secret in the final scene that is both challenging and refreshingly thought-provoking in a way that most films lack the courage to be.
Ozon threads subtlety into to this overtly Scheherezadean tale throughout. We’re never quite sure who is the Sultan and who the story-teller contriving tales to avoid the chop – the compromised teacher, or the manipulative pupil – but this very fluidity is the heart of the story’s intrigue. Come the credits the only thing you’ll mind the film lacking was one last whispered sign off: “À suivre…”

Dans La Maison played on the last day of the BFI London Film Festival, and is scheduled for UK release on March 29, 2013.

4 stars


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