Years and years ago, the novelist Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita, Pale Fire) published bits of his autobiography Speak, Memory as fiction in the New Yorker. By messing with the magazine’s editors and audience, the literary giant and butterfly expert likely had more than a little fun passing off his childhood memories as the stuff of pure fiction. In the House, the latest movie written and directed by François Ozon, plays with this same idea: that of obscuring the line between what’s fiction and what’s real.
But don’t get me wrong. This is not a “docudrama” like Caesar Must Die (which is incredible and playing at St. Anthony Main). Ozon’s movie is, on the other hand, a story about stories, which also touches on the issues of family life, class, control and voyeurism. It’s playful in its telling, and the constant twists lend the film something of a thriller quality. It’s also kind of funny.
So here’s the story: Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is a high school composition teacher generally underwhelmed with his school and his students. But one boy, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), gets his attention when he hands in his first homework assignment. In it, the blonde, cat-faced boy writes about befriending a popular, middle-class kid so as to gain entry into his big, mysterious house. The teacher and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) become entranced by the story. Immediately, they start analyzing it, questioning whether parts — like Claude sneaking through the house, admiring his friend’s mother — are true or made up; and they also discuss if it’s moral of him to write about his “friend” in a such a chastising, discreet way.
And Claude’s next assignment (on adjectives) picks up where the first left off. Again, the teacher is unable to resist the writing, and gobbles it up. Soon, he becomes something of a writing coach to the kid, and helps him shape his work — create drama, build tension, make characters believable, real, human. What the teacher doesn’t control is the story’s direction. That’s under Claude’s command.
This is where Claude comes to resemble Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, whom the reader can’t trust. The teen becomes aware of the grip his talent has on his teacher, and he uses that to somewhat sinister, self-indulgent and weirdly creative means. I won’t spoil any twists, but I will say that they hit story beats with a pleasing, unusual timing. The result is mesmerizing.
Problems one might find with the movie is that its premise is hard to swallow. No kid, no total rookie could write like that. Moreover, no teacher would go so crazy about it as to lose all sense. Yet the actors’ performances combined with Ozon’s smart pacing dissolved such thoughts almost as soon as they bubbled up. Thus Ozon pulls off the movie’s most admirable feat: that of artfully telling a story about telling stories. He shows that composition is key as he confuses you one moment and then fills you in the next…and then does it all over again. He’s such a master that when I recently saw a list of the films at Cannes, I couldn’t help feeling enthusiasm when I saw — and tried to pronounce — his short surname. In other words: If you’re looking for a mesmerizing story, look no further.
In the House is playing at the Edina Cinema.