Full House

in 37th Toronto International Film Festival

by Peter Keough

A writer struggles to finish a story, and his efforts blur the border between fiction and reality. The more tries to write it, the more he and others around him become entangled in his narrative, which seems headed for catastrophe. That describes two films at the Toronto International Film Festival – Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths and François Ozon’s In the House (Dans la maison). Ozon’s version, an adaptation of a play by Juan Mayorga, may not have as many shoot-outs, brutal killings, menaced pets, or exploding heads as McDonagh’s, but it does evoke more existential dread, metaphysical head-scratching, and black comic hilarity. Voted the best film in the Special Presentations section of the Toronto International Film Festival by the FIPRESCI jury, it makes for an exhilarating, self-reflexive romp, combining playful artifice with the inescapable tragedy of thwarted desire.

Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a grumpy French teacher at a soul-numbing high school, is all too familiar with the latter subject. Starting a new year of classes, he’s asked by a colleague why he is so down in the dumps; Germain quips, perhaps not ironically, that he spent the summer reading Schopenhauer. Unsurprisingly, his taste for old-fashioned pessimistic philosophy is matched by his intolerance for new-fangled teaching methods and his contempt for the current generation of indifferent and inept students. After giving out F’s to everyone else for their miserable response to a writing assignment (“What did you do on your summer vacation?”), he’s struck by the beginnings of a strange story written by Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a quiet 16-year-old sitting in the back row. In it Claude describes his vaguely sinister plan to insinuate himself into the staid bourgeois home of an unexceptional classmate whom he has more or less randomly nominated as his best friend. Dismayed by Claude’s seeming amorality and perversity, but drawn to it as well, Germain gives the paper a “B.”

It is a fatal decision. After consulting with his bemused, if distant wife (Kristen Scott Thomas), the manager of a dubious art gallery, Germain decides to nurture the boy’s talent by tutoring him after school. At first morally judgmental and advising caution, Germain is seduced by the power of authorship, and he pushes Claude to greater audacity in exploring his premise. Your story needs conflict, he tells him. So Claude turns into a teenaged version of Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s Teorema, cracking the complacent façade of his host family, stirring up their repressed longings, in particular those of his friend’s placid mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner).

This vaguely incestuous turn of events instigates conflict, and then some. Meanwhile, in the tradition of James Stewart in Rear Window or the average reality TV addict, Germain has become obsessed with the unfolding tale. Unlike the sultan in the Arabian Nights, however, he wants to participate and not just listen passively. He vicariously manipulates Claude’s project, subjects it to scathing criticism, suggests plot twists, and puts on the airs of an omniscient narrator when all the while he is just another character in the story. Playing with his teacher’s awakened voyeurism and urge to control, Claude weaves together writer, reader, story, and critic with disastrous, but aesthetically rewarding results.

In the House is just one of the films at the festival that solipsistically tell stories about telling stories, an indication, perhaps, of a trend of introspection in cinema, in culture in general, turning away from a miserable world that seems beyond help. In addition to Seven Psychopaths, Neil Jordan’s Byzantium, and Josh Boone’s Writers  evoke the enigma of M.C. Escher’s engraving of two self-drawing hands. They are of varying merit, but Ozon’s bittersweet fable is the only one that goes beyond art imitating art to art offering consolation for the tragedies of life.

Peter Keough