It all begins innocuously, in a Literature class, after Professor Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini) asks his students to write an essay on how they spent their weekend. Most of the essays submitted are completely worthless and lacking any kind of creativity, but one particular write-up catches Germain's eye. Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), a relatively bright 16-year old, describes in a rather enticing manner, a weekend visit to his best friend Rapha's house to help him with his Math.
The description turns out to be much more sensational than mundane, as the writer expresses his somewhat unsavoury desires to explore the house further, and dig deeper into its inhabitants, the characters of his essay, especially Rapha's beautiful mother, Esther (Emanuelle Seigner) who is at the center of Claude's voyeuristic gaze.
Claude's essay ends with a suspenseful 'to be continued' remark, and raises the curiosity of not only the professor but also his art-dealer wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). Before they know it, they are hooked; like soap opera or reality show addicts!
Germain, guided by his wife's penchant for substance, prods Claude to write succeeding chapters, claiming that he has great writing talent and should cultivate it by continuing this family drama in a novel format. Of course, continuing the story would mean more visits to Rapha's house. As Claude turns in daily chapters, developing the story into a fascinating family yarn, sometimes of a scandalous nature, Germain and Jeanne take vicarious pleasure in a reality show they cannot see. Only it is soon too late, when things start to get out of control not only in Rapha's household but also in Germain's life at the cost of building a great story!
François Ozon's "Dans La Maison" or "In the House" (2012) plays out in a rather farcical fashion, like a breezy comedy for the most part, but Ozon succeeds in conveying certain pertinent themes, and raises several questions about the human consumption of sensationalism and the inherent existence of a voyeur in practically every human being despite their hypocritical denial. He makes us muse about human curiosity in general, and the undeniable fact that people do find an intrigue in the lives of others, more importantly when there are downs rather than ups in them! After all who is interested in monotony? It is only when there are ripples, that notice is taken.
Ozon examines a consumer's never ending hunger for something outlandish, by subtly blurring the line between the guide and the guided, the manipulator and the manipulated, as they appear to switch places. Whilst Germain is guiding Claude to build his narrative, he in turn becomes a slave to Claude's writing, often becoming dependent on it, and even compromising his ethics when it threatens to come to an end. Further blurred is the line between fiction and reality, for we see events only from Claude's perspective as he narrates the words in his write-ups. But how much of it is real and how much is made up, is largely unknown, partly because we do see an instance of a modified event, reshaped at the behest of Germain himself, on the pretext of pleasing the reader.
A notable parallel subplot involves Jeanne's art gallery and her desperate struggle to keep it afloat and save it from shutting down by having the best of exhibits and boosting sales. She keeps bringing new artworks and seeks Germain's opinions on them, who often comments about whether a particular art form will sell or not. An important reading to be made here is about art for the sake of art and its viability for commercialism. The credibility of an artwork is decided on its marketability and in this regard, Germain always seems to care about an art piece only if he thinks it will sell.
Germain's sentiments are more or less in the same vein when guiding Claude with his novella, except in this case, he claims he is doing it to groom a literary genius, a budding writer; something that he couldn't become, with only a failed romantic novel to his credit. And yet, it is clear as much to the viewer, that he is indeed, more driven by the voyeuristic consumer inside him, for he tastes blood in Claude's sensational story. Only when the sensationalism appears to go way out of hand, he makes a very smart remark invoking the great Italian auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini, one which is certain to bring a smile on the faces of the fans of "Teorema" (1968).
The main theme is reflected in an important sequence by means of an offbeat artwork that Jeanne demonstrates; an audio artwork. The artist verbally describes the artwork and the listener is allowed to (re)create it with his/her interpretation or imagination of the artist's intention. It pretty much mirrors the essence of reading a novel and the very activity Germain is involved in with Claude. Claude writes, and Germain creates a mental picture of Rapha's family in his mind!
Ozon goes on to have some fun himself with the narrative device, and demonstrates the power of cinema and how the medium can be manipulated to suit viewer expectations and requirements. Just as Prof. Germain alters certain events in Claude's writings to meet reader expectations, Ozon toys around with absurdity, creating very interesting meta-moments in which he places Germain himself at the very heart of the action, in the house, which is the center of Claude's beguiling story. It is a very intricately constructed, meticulous screenplay which pays a fitting homage to Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954), one of the earliest cinematic depictions of voyeurism.
Despite the delicious oddities, originality and intelligence that "In the House" certainly possesses, it does feel like Ozon somehow refrains from pushing the envelope. The narrative seems restrained and appears to become stagnant and just slightly monotonous after a point. Furthermore, in the process of providing an ending, much like Claude in the film, Ozon takes some abruptly clumsy turns that fail to convince.
Ozon has made better films than "In the House", but there is no doubt that this is one of the most unique and premium offerings in his filmography.