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Bad teacher's classroom voyeurism

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In the House (MA). Director: François Ozon. Starring: Luchini, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ernst Umhauer, Bastien Ughetto. 105 minutes

'Those who can't do, teach,' declares the unkind truism. The intriguing and disquieting comedy In the House presents the proverbial failed writer turned high school English teacher as a cynical beast of almost sociopathic dimensions. French auteur François Ozon examines the implications of this with a dark and irreverent wit.

Germain (Luchini) is certainly weary of his fallback career. He is bemused but, unlike many of his colleagues, not outraged by the school principal's latest autocratic move to force students to wear uniforms. He seems more interested in the staff meeting snack table than the civil rights of his students.

The depths of his disillusionment are revealed at home. With his wife, gallery operator Jeanne (Thomas), he sneers at the half-hearted writing efforts of one English class. To be fair, one student has managed a measly few sentences (one of which is: 'Nothing.') in response to the task 'Write about your weekend'.

Germain's disdain is shifted though by the dissertation of one student, Claude (Umhauer), whom he learns is a maths whiz now trying his hand at writing. Germain is inspired and invigorated by the boy's obvious natural gift and decides to take him under his wing — despite the unsettling nature of Claude's chosen subject.

Ozon is interested in the ethical obligations of writers in representing reality, and explores this through Germain's mentorship of Claude. Claude in his essays writes unflatteringly about the 'perfect', 'middle class' family of a peer (and fellow student of Germain), Rapha (Ughetto), whose trust he has entered under a pretense of friendship.

The filmmaker can't resist the urge to get 'meta'. Claude's narratives play out on screen, but characters, events and mood are altered by redrafting. It becomes harder for the viewer to discern what is real and what is not. The suggestion here is that reality takes on qualities of fiction as it passes through the lens of a writer's craft.

And there is an implicit ethical problem here. When does writing cross the line from 'harmless' voyeurism to exploitation? Germain and Claude speak cruelly of Claude's 'characters', but they are not in fact fictional at all. In Germain's case this eventually manifests as an overt and humiliating act of cruelty to the 'real' Rapha.

Ozon is clearly skeptical of artistic pretensions devoid of ethical considerations. Using Jeanne's gallery, he satirises both exploitation/provocation at one end of the spectrum ('dictator porn') and minimalism at the other (blank canvases and photos of clouds). The implication is that humanity is endangered if artists' only obligation is to art.

Art, like education, should enhance humanity, not diminish it. This principle lies at the heart of In the House. Claude's own troubled personal life is hinted at but not revealed in detail until the final moments of the film. It is in neglecting the human reality of both Claude and Rapha that Germain has failed as a teacher.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: François Ozon, Luchini, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ernst Umhauer, Bastien Ughetto, In the House



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Gavan Breen | 04 July 2013  

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