Dans la Maison (Bow Tie, May 8th, 2013)

dans la maisonI have a friend who has only just now entered the Bukowski phase of his writing career. That is to say, having finally discovered some literature that speaks to him, and beginning to enjoy wielding the strange power the arrangement of words can yield, he has set out to become a writer, exploring the one topic he finds the most fascinating: namely himself.
I believe a large number of writers begin by first scribing a public diary, and truly believe there life to be such an interesting case—or at least their observation of the events within it—that it will truly be sometime others would benefit to read. Some writers mature, find topics, themes of passion and continue on from there. Some writers, very few indeed, actually manage to subsist off of such public scribbling of the private either by the sheer enjoyment of the construction of their sentences, or by the base depravity of their deeds. Some writers just become diarists, writing to a nonexistent reader in moleskin kept in a private bureau drawer; some even less than that. And some, if they find they can’t quite write, teach.
Francois Ozon’s new puzzle Dans La Maison introduces us to two phases of the same whole. We first meet Germain (brilliantly and bitingly portrayed by Fabrice Luchini), a middle-aged literature teacher to Sophomores; he once wrote a novel, but soon realized that talent failed him. However, as his wife notes, lucidity is one of Germain’s rare qualities. When a student describes him as being bitter about not being equipped with the talent to be a great writer, rather than become angered, Germain muses, “Well, he’s not wrong.” Germain’s wife, by the way, runs an art gallery whose only criteria for art is that people must like it so she won’t get fired (and she tries everything, including verbal painting, where an artist on compact disc walks you through the steps of completing a painting while the viewer looks on at a blank canvas).
Germain encounters a student who seems to have a knack for the written word. Claude, played with Ernst Umhauer in a way that constantly refuses the audience ease while in his presence, a sixteen year old math whiz trying his hand with letters, pens a piece that intrigues Germain. Certainly, there are reasons not quite disclosed, but the main and full frontal reason: this is good writing. Claude has talent, and Germain feels he can take him under his wing and make him good enough…to be a Writer.
Claude’s problem is, he can only write what he sees, more or less. His story, involving integrating himself into the lives of his friend’s family, can only be written if he actually proceeds to do it. Unlike most people’s diary phase, however, there is a third player—the Mentor.
Germain, the Mentor, sees Claude as what a son? No, more likely a younger version of himself—so close but never able to harness the ability to pull off Literature with a capitol “L.” Innocently enough, Germain tries to influence the writing, and winds up influencing the lives of not only the family in the story, but himself and Claude. The story so closely monitors life, that when there is a fictional element entered, it is a shock to Germain. When Germain meets the parents of Claude’s friend, he is shocked as their appearance is different than expect, although, Germain can’t help but see, that Claude DOES have a knack at characterization. When Mrs. Germain mentions she thought Germain would be happy to meet these parents, Germain laughs, “Honey…these are fictional characters!”
Francois Ozon’s tale is steeped in story and elements of such. I suspect that this film will work best with those who have drifted into the murky waters of prose and weren’t quite sure what they were offering or how to sail straight (which could, adroitly put, be cut short to “this film will work best with writers,” because, my friend if you have written, and not suffered these pitfalls, I don’t know what the hell you have written, but you have not yet written anything I need read).
But the film is far more universal than that, and if not quite a mystery, it sure does hold the viewer in suspense. Reality and fiction and layers of fact and fiction become layered and misconstrued in a more menacing and powerful way than any element of “Inception,” and, as in all things Ozon, “Dans la Maison,” is full of humor, quirky compositions, sterile compositions, and such a sure hand that the viewer cannot help but fall in and be led along.
Over time, and once familiar with the material, this piece may work better as an examination of writers and the written word. What is fiction? What is story? Does the author owe any obligation of anonymity to the subjects that inspired the creation? Can one step in and document a life, without consequence? And what happens when the Author becomes the Subject of Importance—entering the story?
Well, for Jack Kerouac, who couldn’t help but fall into the trap of celebrity that success laid out for him, he died at 47 with a rotten liver and dreams long since broken, even as anything he put to a page could get published. In the end however, Ozon seems to suggest that as long as there exists people, whose lives vampirific bards can inject as substance into their words—if Germain can get his health up, Claude and he might be alright just a little longer. The rest of us….we might want to worry.

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