When the lines between student and teacher become blurred
In his authoritative book, The Big Screen: What the movies have done to us – the author and noted critic David Thomson argues that the relationship between the audience and the screen has changed since cinema established itself as the twentieth century's major form of mass entertainment.
Thompson's view is that what was once seen as a 'cheap form of amusement' has evolved into something much more complex, where human beings' dreams and fantasies are played out in public, what he describes as 'a way of realising desire on the big screen'.
Thomson's view comes irresistibly to mind when watching François Ozon's 13th feature film 'In the House, which opens Film Society's new season tomorrow. It's a film that explores the realising of desire – as well as a number of other issues (education, storytelling, the lives of the middle class, mental health among others) – in provocative and entertaining ways.
Ozon gives the film a contemporary suburban setting, with much of the early action taking place in a lycée where Germain (Fabrice Luchini) teaches literature. The school is under new leadership and is in the process of becoming more 'child-centred', something Germain sees as being both inadequate and unnecessary.
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The despair he feels at the way the school is changing is equalled by his despair at what he sees as the disinterested attitudes of his students who, he feels, lack motivation and ambition.
There is irony in the fact that the first piece of work he sets them is to write about what they did at the weekend – hardly an inspiring title.
But his complaints to his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) about these matters receive little sympathy, she being preoccupied with her latest art exhibition.
Germain's mood is considerably improved however when he reads what Claude – a newcomer – has written. The piece is a speculation on the life of Rapha, another pupil in the class.
It emerges that Claude envies what he sees as the settled and rather comfortable nature of Rapha's home – for reasons we discover later in the film. It also intrigues Germain, who sees an opportunity to enliven the day to day routine, by encouraging Claude to write further episodes.
What then develops is a relationship between teacher and pupil that is both intriguing and unsettling and goes to the heart of Thomson's contention about 'realising desire.' What are the motives behind the actions of both Germain and Claude? Are they driven simply by a curiosity about the lives of others? Is one manipulating the other? Or is it that they both long for a different kind of life to the one they are forced to live, with all its frustrations and which the storytelling helps provide?
There are other things going on too. We discover Germain is an unsuccessful novelist and it is possible that this failure is something that haunts him. There is also the faltering relationship that he has with his wife. Just as he may have harboured a desire to become a novelist, so her ambitions to run a successful gallery seem doomed to fail; and neither seems to be able to help and support the other.
As we ponder these events, it's worth considering the extent to which we, the audience, are involved. There is a scene at the end of the film reminiscent of the Hitchcock classic 'Rear Window'.
Thomson says of that film that 'it is a lesson in looking at screens, trying to fathom their stories and asking yourself whether you're involved with the story or simply a spectator without identity or responsibility'.
As we watch the film develop, we too try to 'fathom the story', grappling with our understanding of the motivations that drive both Germain and Claude. Are we seeing a reflection of our own lives (or elements of them), or are we merely being spectators of a film and a relationship? Perhaps what Thomson means in his comments (on what the movies have done to us) is that we should all consider how we interact with the world and the extent to which we own and direct our own lives.
In The House doesn't have the broad humour of Potiche (shown by Film Society in March last year), but it is entertaining, clever and thought-provoking that marks Ozon as one of the most innovative and talented directors of his generation.
In the House (15): showing at The Venue, Friday September 6 (7.30pm) and Sunday September 8 (3pm).
The Society is also pleased to present Scent a short film from city-based Blueprint Film, which will be shown before In the House.
Directed by Darrent Bolton, Scent is the story of an elderly man gripped with grief following the death of his wife and struggling to accept his life as he has known it for so long, has altered irreparably.
Also at The Venue
September 7: Family Film Club: Despicable Me 2 (U) 2.30
The Great Gatsby (12a). 7.30
September 11: Frances Ha (15). 2.30pm and 7.30pm.