You Must Change Your Life

In the House (Dans la maison)

Cohen Media Group

Jeanne adopts an ambiguous expression on her face, combining pleasurable surprise and demonstrative disapproval, as she looks up from a piece of paper and over at her husband Germain. She’s not sure what to say. “He’s just a boy angry with the real,” retorts the latter, a French high school teacher. The two discuss Claude, Germain’s student and protégé, whose school essays have an undeniably vicious streak running through them, “and with good reason!” Jeanne, on the other hand, claims to feel “uneasy” about the whole affair, even though she was intrigued enough by Claude’s first paper to ask to read the second. If Germain defends his pupil, it’s because he, too, is upset with reality. 

François Ozon’s 2012 film In the House (Dans la maison) begins with Germain—played by Éric Rohmer favorite and uber-literate thespian Fabrice Luchini—attending a teachers meeting at the beginning of a new school year. Already grumpy (“I spent the summer reading Schopenhauer,” he explains to a colleague), the teacher enters an almost caricaturally boring environment. After picking up a dry-looking croissant from the buffet table, he goes to sit on a plastic chair amongst other corduroy-wearing professors, all looking somewhat depressed long before the first ring of the bell. The school director gives a speech intended to be rousing about how the Lycée Gustave Flaubert has become a test school for a new policy: the return of the school uniform, which is meant to bring back discipline and a sense of community to the students. Germain munches on his pastry with a blank expression, the camera isolating him in a sea of forlorn and drab professors. Conformity runs the game.

At Germain’s apartment, brown hues also dominate, from the floorboards to the furniture and the decoration, which is all the more surprising considering his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) runs a contemporary art gallery. Similarly to Germain, who struggles to impart his love for literature to younger generations, she has grown impatient with a world that doesn’t understand the true meaning of art. She is on the verge of losing her job to a pair of clueless and artless landladies (being twins, they too are models of a disturbing sameness), while Germain may simply lose his mind, fighting an uphill battle against uninspired and phone-addicted students. Complacency verges dangerously on frustration, like a low buzz that follows Germain around and makes him increasingly bitter.

Is it so surprising, then, that obsession would eventually arise within such a bare and deprived environment? Claude’s (Ernst Umhauer) first essay catches Germain by surprise. As the blasé teacher, expecting more uninspired drivel about weekends spent sleeping or playing video games, reads the text aloud to Jeanne, Ozon’s camera starts slowly zooming in on the man, who finds himself absorbed yet also slightly offended by the young writer’s story. In a long take, the filmmaker then focuses on Jeanne as she listens, Scott Thomas’s face vacillating between wonder and repulsion. Claude, a newcomer at school, writes about deciding to befriend his classmate Raphaël Artole (Bastien Ughetto) for the sole purpose of gaining access to his house, which he often observed from across the park over the summer. Beyond their morbid fascination with discovering the dirty secrets the Artoles may be hiding, however, it’s “what’s between the lines” that most disturbs Germain and Jeanne—what Claude’s tone reveals. His attention to the less resplendent details of the Artoles’ lives and his determination to do whatever is necessary to get in the house (the phrase is repeated several dozen times throughout the film, obsessively, to delightful effect) demonstrate selfish passion of the kind that is sorely lacking from Germain’s life. Claude’s writing is exciting not only because it is grammatically correct when so many students struggle to put even two words together; most importantly, it is precise, pointed, scathing—in a word, obsessive.

In his second essay, Claude explains that he chose “Rapha” as his subject precisely because the boy appeared to be so very normal. From the park bench, he had noticed how perfectly banal and bourgeois the Artole family looked. Writing, then, becomes a way for Claude to put these impeccable appearances under a microscope and to reveal the ugly truth behind them—or at least what he considers to be the truth. When he first sees Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), Rapha’s mother, Claude immediately interprets her preoccupation with choosing the right new curtains as a symptom of narrow-mindedness and a definite sign of that existential dissatisfaction typical of the “middle-class woman.” He describes her smell and the way she looked him up and down upon first meeting—“did she imagine me differently?” Through Claude’s meticulous observation, even the most mundane scene is infused with a certain tension, and the camera becomes much more fluid and dynamic when capturing these narrated moments. 

But the fact remains that Claude is also somewhat mean in his descriptions of this happily “normal” family, as he calls them. One of the things that delights Germain the most about his student’s writing is how unwittingly close he comes to the styles and perspectives of both Gustave Flaubert and Jean de La Fontaine, two writers who, in their own way, made an art of extrapolating moral dilemmas and value judgments from the most mundane of situations. Are Claude’s vicious descriptions of this family cruel, or simply accurate? Are they mere observations, or character assassinations, ridiculing people who cannot even defend themselves? The more he writes, the more his dedication to the minutiae of their lives reveals a profound disdain for all that the Artoles represent. Obsessing over their mediocrity is Claude’s way of asserting his superiority to them. Yet his cruel obsession translates into exacting and exciting writing, to Germain’s great pleasure. However worryingly intrusive Claude may be with that family, his writing is far better than any other student’s, and Germain becomes determined to improve it further. 

The teacher’s concerns turn artistic: is Claude aiming for parody? Realism? Stylization? The author must make a choice. He encourages the pupil to go for more surprising narrative beats and reminds him, his voice verging on desperation, to avoid clichés at all times. He lends books to his student with clear instructions not to dog-ear or mark any pages.

Germain’s motivation for dismissing his initial unease and for focusing instead on Claude’s “potential” is his own obsession: the written word. After receiving particularly scathing notes from his professor, Claude one day asks him why Germain doesn’t simply write himself. With surprisingly little self-pity, he replies that he tried once but simply doesn’t have “it.” Through his young student, the teacher can satisfy his need for intellectual superiority, making his disciple write according to his own strong beliefs about narrative structure and style. Claude’s presumptuous and judgemental writing is the vessel for Germain’s own literary arrogance. Obsession spreads from student to teacher, and for a while they both thrive in each other’s feverish enthusiasm.

True to his fascination with desire and compulsion, Ozon slowly reveals what lies at the root of these superior and obsessive attitudes. Claude’s motive is more immediately apparent, and his teenage naivety makes him endearing despite his psychopathic behavior: the kid simply wants real familial love, and the Artole home is everything he’s never had. He explains to his mentor that he switched to the present tense in his writing as a way “to stay in the house,” and his tone evolves from outright contempt to voyeuristic envy. If he is at first so disdainful of the Artoles’ middle-class life, it is precisely because he feels cheated out of the kind of contentment and safety they enjoy. As for Germain, the satisfaction he gets from this power trip shows in how far he is willing to go to keep the charade going. When Claude tells the professor that he won’t be able to go to the Artoles’—and therefore to write—if Rapha fails his upcoming math test, it is hard to pinpoint who exactly is encouraging the other to find a solution. Does Germain get the idea of stealing the test on his own, or did Claude essentially put it in his head?

“If what you see is ugliness, fine, but transpose, transform!” Germain begs of his prodigy. As the teacher points out, Flaubert could perceive and transcribe Madame Bovary’s flaws without judging her (I’m not so sure of that myself). He invites Claude to get ever closer to the Artoles in order to move beyond his prejudice and write better, more complex characters. Pushed by Germain’s maniacal need for compelling storytelling, Claude looks his contempt straight in the eye and begins to access the desire and desperation that it was covering: he reaches down to the very core of his obsession. Very quickly, he becomes infatuated with Esther and his fantasy of superiority turns into a fantasy of possessive love, at once filial and sexual—we enter classic Ozon territory, populated as ever with Oedipus complexes, doubles, and transgressive urges. Through his writing, Claude is able to push against the boundaries of his reality and see his wildest desires fulfilled: instead of being simply superior to Esther, he could have her and become Rapha Jr. or Rapha Sr., whichever or both of them. Obsession is the mechanism through which we try to forget and compensate for our deepest wounds.

As Claude’s tale becomes increasingly far-fetched, Germain begins to wonder whether any of it is truly happening. Once again, however, his concern is only temporary and can’t compete with his desire to see this story through. Just as the boy gets lost somewhere between fantasy and reality, Germain no longer cares to find the line between the real and the imagined—he even further encourages Claude to find better narrative developments, regardless of whether Claude’s tales are fact or fiction. Ozon participates in this jump into wishful thinking-slash-fictionalization through his mise-en-scène. In the House itself starts breaking down, with Claude’s voice-over at times becoming diegetic dialogue, Germain appearing in and interrupting scenes at the Artoles’ house, and the spectator left wondering what to believe. A film à tiroir where plotlines suddenly emerge then get rejected, it becomes reminiscent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and its sequences of soon-to-be-forgotten moments, only this time, some of them contradict one another, or simply never happened in the first place. 

At some point in the narration of his (dream)life, Claude describes being finally alone in the house with Esther. The camera glides smoothly through a perfect series of events that soon leads him to her lips: everything that separates them magically fades into the background as they exchange a forbidden but irresistible kiss in the kitchen—a classic teenage fantasy satisfied, a certain kind of happiness finally attained. At this moment, the teacher suddenly erupts onto the scene, coming out of a closet and observing the pair with skepticism, while remaining invisible to Esther. As Claude explores his fantasy, Germain himself also pursues his own: a vision of the perfect story. He does not notice that, for the young man, this is as real as it gets. The imprudent teacher has made his student believe that life could truly be shaped through art; in fact, both are now at a remove from reality, looking at it from a critical distance, their egos blown out of proportion. 

When confronted by Jeanne, Germain argues feebly that Claude might “learn about life” through art. “There’s nothing to learn from art!” she snaps, thus perhaps challenging their entire lives’ purpose and putting the question to the spectators, too. In the House engages viewers directly by sharing with them the process of writing and screenwriting, showing them what Claude writes and what Germain corrects. We get to ask ourselves why certain plot developments feel more or less satisfactory, whether we are driven by expectations, by preconceived notions of character and story, or by our own personal compulsions as viewers and voyeurs; cinema is for peeping toms, especially when Ozon is the director. Are we learning how to live from watching characters following through on their urges? 

Claude eventually offers Esther a love poem, using his writing abilities to try and shape his life and “force the moment to its crisis”, to quote T.S. Eliot. This development strikes Germain as unconvincing, since the housewife has so far been described as utterly devoid of poetry, and he is, in this case, proven right. Esther simply does not understand nor appreciate the text’s mixed metaphors and rather than bring them closer, the poem reveals the gap between Claude’s idea of Esther, and who she really is. That realization is elegantly echoed in another disappointment with reality, this time for Rapha Jr., who kisses Claude and finds that his affection is not returned. Rapha, too, was living in a fantasy, and it is telling that Claude imagines that his friend wouldn’t be able to tolerate this rejection and would kill himself. Perhaps writers love drama because they reject the tedious and dreary quality of disappointment.

Defending his creepy collaboration with the young writer, Germain says early on in the film that writing these stories is in any case “better than setting cars on fire” on the streets, the way bored and frustrated teenagers typically do (or so he believes). That was before Claude, disillusioned, turned against his teacher and ruined his life with one more story, a lie that makes Jeanne leave her husband. What truly drives Germain to madness, however, is a story he then imagines entirely on his own, in which Claude slept with Jeanne to get back at him—our imaginations don’t always give us escapist pleasure; sometimes it’s quite the opposite. The distance between reality and fantasy has proven too great for both characters and they must make a choice: to remain in the world of make-believe, where they can be all powerful, or come back down to earth and face the pains that their obsessions have revealed to them. Claude looks for an ending to his story by returning to Esther, who lightly lets him down, but Germain can’t cope (and we learn that his full name is Germain Germain, perhaps a reference to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, a man who tried to twist his sordid, predatory life into a love story for the ages). When the two meet again, it is at the mental institution where the former professor resides and tries to get his feet back on the ground. With nothing left to lose, they have reconciled, and as they look through the windows of distant apartments where all kinds of lives are unfolding, Claude suggests maliciously that they could team up again to imagine more stories. Germain seems scared, surprised, and maybe a little excited when Claude adds, “there’s always a way in.” 

The jury is still out on whether art can truly teach us how to live. What In the House suggests, in any case, is that art might help us confront facets of ourselves that we are otherwise encouraged to keep hidden. Through writing, Claude has been able to come into contact with his obsessive need to feel superior to those luckier than himself. That exploration has uncovered the emptiness he carries inside, and made him realize that he couldn’t simply wish it (or write it) away. As for Germain, his own obsession has consumed him, but humbled him, too. According to Ozon, obsession tends to go hand in hand with delusion—which is why it lends itself so well to cinema. Most any film is the expression and the working through of an obsessive idea through fantasy. With filmmaking, a director can reshape reality, imagine different outcomes, or pursue an urge further than would be acceptable in life, which may help soothe a recurring dissatisfaction with things as they really are—an obsession. As spectators, we also watch films to face our own obsessions, to wonder where they come from and how to better live with them—or even, if we’re lucky, to exorcize them.