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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 04.16.13] France thriller mystery

The idea that what is shown is never as terrifying as what's implied is an old adage that works well for horror movies but it's also the case in some dramas. Michael Haneke played with that idea to great effect in The White Ribbon which explores some dark and troubling ideas but is only truly scary after the fact. The images themselves aren't scary but the subtext is terrifying. Francois Ozon's In the House isn't on the same playing field as Haneke's masterpiece but it plays well in the same sandbox, a story that appears fairly mild until we step back and consider exactly what we've just seen.

Ozon's tale starts off innocently enough with Germain, a jaded high school teacher finding a potential writing genius in one of his students. Claude doesn't seem particularly interested in literature but he takes Germain's guidance partly because he's curious and partly because he wants to keep writing his story. And what a story it is.

Claude is retelling the events that are unfolding in his own life as he befriends a school mate named Rapha. At first, the events that Claude writes appear unembellished, they're interesting not because of what's happening but because of the way Claude describes them but as his friendship progresses and Claude's writing improves, the story/life takes on some strange twists. Claude is in love with Rapha's mother and determined to rescue her from her unhappy life and it's here that we begin to question if the events Claude is describing are truly unfolding or he's just making them up as he goes along. This leads to another line of thinking: were the events Claude described every real or were they always just a story based on real people?

Germain lectures Claude on how to improve his writing, how to create a captivating story that keeps the reader interested. At first he's completely disconnected from the people involved, to him, they're all just characters in a story but when Claude's actions become bolder in service of the story, Germain begins to realize that these aren't just characters on a page but real people whose lives are being directly affected by his instructions. The realization that he's playing god with strangers' lives sends Germain into a tailspin of damage control which in turn has some devastating effects on his own life and which suggests that perhaps Claude's mark was never Rapha's family but rather his seemingly uninterested teacher.

It's a terrific little thriller but what's really interesting about In the House isn't the twisty and unexpected script but rather the implications of the actions taken by the various characters. The very idea that Claude would play out the events of the story rather than simply imagine how they could play out raises some interesting points about imagination - is Ozon making some observation on the lack of imagination in today's youth? Or maybe he's simply observing that the most interesting stories are real ones. What if the story was never real but only Claude's imagination at work? What does that say about Germain that he was manipulated into believing the story was real and what's more, what does that say about Claude that he willingly pushed his teacher into some dark and questionable situations?

Mixed into all of this drama of what's real and what's not is an exploration of selfishness (all of the characters seem to be playing their own angle for their own benefit), love, control, abuse and even jabs at the state of the education system.

On the surface In the House appears to be a slight, occasionally comedic thriller, a story that doesn't leave a trail of dead bodies and does little in the way of damage to people's lives with the exception of Germain (interesting that the man playing puppet master is the one to suffer the greatest losses), but there are so many interpretations of the characters and their actions, each with it's own set of moral implications that in the end, you'll want to see it again if only to figure out who's playing who.

In the House opens in NY at the Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza and in LA exclusively at the Landmark Theatre on April 19th.

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