Friday, March 7, 2014

"The Singular Smell of a Middle Class Woman" : film review

“The Singular Smell of a Middle Class Woman”: 
François Ozon’s In The House
By Liza Béar

Over the course of a dozen features such as Criminal Lovers, Sitcom, Under the Sand, Swimming Pool, Potiche, and several shorts, auteur François Ozon , 45, has forged his own style, urbane and sophisticated, treating provocative psychosexual subject matter with a deft touch. In 2012's In the House, Ozon shows his chops as a master director in handling complex material with humor and dexterity.

Loosely based on the Spanish play, The Boy in the Last Row by Juan Mayorga, Ozon’s adaptation is a devilishly witty satire about a teacher whose efforts at mentoring a bright student run amok. Picking up threads from his 2003 Swimming Pool, starring Charlotte Rampling, that deals with a mystery novelist’s writer’s block, in the new film the central student-teacher relationship , in which the learning goes both ways, anchors the drama and enables Ozon to further explore his own creative process, reality and fiction, and crossing the line. In a way, the film might be seen as Ozon’s dialogue with his younger self.

Set in a small provincial town outside Paris, the story opens at the Lycée Gustave Flaubert during the first faculty meeting of the academic year with the introduction of school uniforms, not the norm in France. Social class and income differentials may be neutralized sartorially, but not so the imagination. And the imagination at work is what Germain (Fabrice Luchini) a literature teacher in his mid-fifties, is quick to respond to while grading 16-year-old Claude’s homework assignment on How I spent My Week-end. (His classmates have turned in a few barely literate sentences about eating pizza and watching TV). Germain reads the whole essay out loud to his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott- Thomas, in top form), the director of a supposedly avant- garde art gallery, which elicits some acerbic commentary. (Analytical note: By having Germain read out loud, Ozon clearly establishes the function of writing within the film. Later, he uses Claude’s voice-over narration to distinguish between reality and his essays, and ultimately Ozon eliminates the narration.)

Wondering what the life of a “normal” family is like, the resourceful Claude (first-timer Ernst Umhauer) , whose father is paralysed , unemployed, and mother absent, offers to tutor his sportif classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) in trigonometry at home. He thus gets to observe the nuclear family at close quarters. Certain phrases in Claude’s first essay, such as noticing “the smell of a middle class woman” on entering the Artole house, and describing Rapha’s mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner, aka Mrs Roman Polanski) as having eyes the color of the sofa, pique Germain’s curiosity. After class, he’s motivated to give the boy extra tutorials on the basics of dramatic writing, including stick figure diagrams on the blackboard--there’s self-referential irony for Ozon here--plies him with tomes of literature, including Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, and becomes engrossed in the weekly installments that Claude turns in, which always end with the words “To Be Continued”; he’s prepared to cross the line to make sure that Claude’s visits to the house as a math tutor continue.
Germain is himself a little-known romance novelist, which adds touch of poignancy to his role and enriches it. Now he exercises his creative impulses vicariously through his student.
As the narrative develops, both Germain and Claude take risks, become co-conspirators in what has in effect become a joint endeavour. When Rapha Sr, (Denis Menochet) and Rapha Jr, are at a basketball game, Claude seduces Esther, “the world’s most bored housewife “ who thumbs through home decoration magazines; after all, didn’t Germain tell him a writer should “love his characters”? Meanwhile, to make sure Rapha gets a good grade in the pending math test, Germain steals a copy of the test from the faculty room and gives it to Claude.

Gradually, reality merges with fiction, and neither Germain, Jeanne, nor the film’s viewers can be quite sure which of the events Claude describes have really happened, whether he has made them happen in order to write about them ( a common ploy among writers) or whether they are figments of his imagination. In any case, Ozon’s adroit mise-en-scene, and especially his skill at orchestrating scene transitions, makes for suspenseful, highly entertaining cinema.

Ozon’s earlier adaptations, all without any trace of staginess, include “Water Drops on Burning Rocks”, an unproduced play by 19-year-old Fassbinder and one of my favorites; Jean- Pierre Gredy and Pierre Barillet’s “8 Women”, and Robert Thomas’s “Potiche” (Trophy Wife), starring Catherine Deneuve, in which Fabrice Luchini plays the testy boss of an umbrella factory. In “In the House” Luchini is thoroughly in his element as the affable, inspired literature teacher; Ernst Umhauer as a sly, manipulative Claude and the rest of the cast are first-rate. 
© Copyright 2013 Liza Béar. All rights reserved.

OZON's latest film "Jeune et Jolie", starring Marina Vacth, was nominated for a Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2013. It's currently playing at IFC Center, Film Society and BAM as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and will open theatrically at IFC on April 25th 2014.