Dans La Maison is the 14th feature film from Francois Ozun and hopefully the international breakthrough that he deserves.
The film begins with Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a disillusioned French literature teacher, talking to his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) about the terrible writing styles of his young French students. He has set them the task of writing about their weekends and the pitiful responses lead him to seem ready to give up hope. That is until he reads a witty response from one of his students called Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who has satirized his middle class neighbours, focusing mainly on the mother of the household. Germain is encouraged by this and asks Claude to write more, which leads to both the boy getting inappropriately involved with the family, and Germain risking his job in order to satisfy his curiosity about The House referred to in the title...
The cinematography of the film beautifully portrays the modern, clinical, forgettable school architecture as well as the limitless number of seemingly identical students in a way that allows the viewer to appreciate the banality of Germain’s job and detached attitude towards his life. The title sequence at the beginning reminded me again that there should be an ‘achievement in credit design’ category at the Academy Awards (it wouldn’t have won, but I liked it).
There is also a wonderful narrative device at work in the film – As Claude observes the family he describes what he see with a voiceover that allows the viewer to be both present in the house as well as detached from the description. Later on, Claude gives his notes to Germain and he offers his advice on where the story should go (with reference to the great masters of French fiction), this then leads Claude to rewrite the scenes which are then revisited onscreen with subtle changes of action and dialogue. This unreliable narrator trick could have easily failed, yet is executed with a deliberate French wit and focuses more on the youth of Claude instead of the wisdom of Germain.
The film manages to tell a suspense/thriller narrative set in the backdrop of a French state secondary school and the middle class suburbs. The voyeurism explored in the film is somewhat lost in the predictable cliché that simmering underneath the surface of the middle classes is a violence and an ugliness that dare not speak (or write) its name – but the lighthearted, childlike curiosity in which Claude interacts with his chosen family makes for tense viewing and a fresh take on an age old theme.