LES­SON IN OB­SES­SIVE­NESS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

In the House (MA15+) ★★★★✩ Limited re­lease

Epic (PG) ★★★✩✩ National re­lease

AT first sight, Fran­cois Ozon’s In the House looks like the sort of film David Lynch might have made in one of his gen­tler moods: a bit­ter com­men­tary on the no­tion of happy fam­ily life in an ide­alised Amer­i­can suburbia. Al­fred Hitch­cock at­tempted some­thing sim­i­lar, and more sin­is­ter, in Shadow of a Doubt. For cer­tain Hol­ly­wood film­mak­ers, films ex­plor­ing the dark un­der­belly of the ideal fam­ily must seem like a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive to clas­sic heart-warm­ers such as Mir­a­cle on 34th Street and It’s a Won­der­ful Life.

The cen­tral fig­ure is likely to be a lonely char­ac­ter with a se­cret crav­ing for the loving fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment that life has de­nied him. In Mark Ro­manek’s bril­liantly chill­ing One Hour Photo, Robin Wil­liams works at a photo counter in a shop­ping mall and makes copies of cus­tomers’ pho­tos, which he uses to dec­o­rate his own apart­ment with scenes of idyl­lic fam­ily life. Sy Par­rish will go down as one of the great ob­ses­sives in Amer­i­can cin­ema, like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver or Harry Caul, the con­flicted sur­veil­lance ex­pert in The Con­ver­sa­tion. At the cli­max of Ro­manek’s film, Sy in­fil­trates the home of his ideal fam­ily. In Joseph Ruben’s The Step­fa­ther (1987), an­other lonely (and more danger­ous) ob­ses­sive yearns for the consolations of the per­fect TV fam­ily and takes bloody re­venge on fam­i­lies that fail to meet his stan­dards.

In Ozon’s film, adapted from a play, The Boy in the Last Row by Juan May­orga, the lonely one is Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a trou­bled teenager in a French high school. Claude is the only boy in his class to show an in­ter­est in lit­er­a­ture, much to the de­light of his teacher, the weary and cyn­i­cal Ger­main (Fabrice Lu­chini), who en­cour­ages him in his writ­ing. When Claude dis­cov­ers a new friend in Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), he takes to spy­ing on Rapha’s home, one of those white-painted, tim­ber-framed houses that might have come straight from the set of Meet Me in St Louis. Claude is ob­sessed with the idea that Rapha and his par­ents rep­re­sent the per­fect loving fam­ily and he longs to share their hap­pi­ness. He writes an es­say de­scrib­ing his feel­ings and, with Ger­main’s ap­proval, con­tin­ues the story in se­rial form. Each in­stal­ment ends with the words ‘‘ to be con­tin­ued’’ — a phrase that punc­tu­ates the film and un­der­lines the sub­tle rhythms of Ozon’s screen­play.

In the House un­folds as a pen­e­trat­ing study of char­ac­ter, part fan­tasy, part psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. It’s not long be­fore Claude is ex­plor­ing the in­te­rior of Rapha’s house while the oc­cu­pants are ab­sent. (‘‘What’s a per­fect fam­ily’s house like?’’ he asks him­self.) Later we see him lurk­ing in door­ways and eaves­drop­ping on con­ver­sa­tions. He lusts af­ter Rapha’s mother, Es­ther (Em­manuelle Seigner). How much of the film is real and how much a prod­uct of Claude’s imag­i­na­tion, we can’t be sure. At school, Claude sees Ger­main as the kind of fa­ther fig­ure he craves

at home. In turn, Ger­main finds him­self drawn to the boy — com­pen­sa­tion, per­haps, for his own do­mes­tic un­hap­pi­ness. His wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), man­ages a gallery spe­cial­is­ing in hideous con­tem­po­rary art­works. Their mar­riage is frayed and love­less.

Like Ozon’s ear­lier film Swim­ming Pool (2003), In the House can be seen as a med­i­ta­tion on the process of creative writ­ing.

Swim­ming Pool be­gan as a mys­tery story about a writer of crime fic­tion on hol­i­day in France and turned into some­thing much more com­plex and pro­found. I’ve al­ways thought it the best thing Ozon has done.

In the House has the same blurred bound­aries be­tween fan­tasy and re­al­ity, the same un­der­cur­rents of mys­tery and re­pressed eroti­cism. Claude’s moods of ado­les­cent sex­ual yearn­ing are be­liev­able, some­times ex­plicit, but never over­stated. Ozon’s touch is light, oc­ca­sion­ally comic, and sup­ported by a per­for­mance of won­der­fully rue­ful melan­choly by Lu­chini. A failed writer him­self, Ger­main is the true an­chor of the film, col­lab­o­rat­ing with Claude on his story, teach­ing him the rudi­ments of lit­er­ary style and act­ing as a silent wit­ness to his youth­ful tra­vails.

The per­for­mances seem to me flaw­less. Umhauer, a 21-year-old who could pass for 16, is splen­did as Claude, and his fi­nal scenes with Ger­main are greatly mov­ing. Is he wiser in the ways of the world? I would think so. Ozon’s keen­est irony is the rev­e­la­tion that Rapha’s fam­ily — ide­alised by Claude as the em­bod­i­ment of do­mes­tic bliss — is as stressed and vul­ner­a­ble as any other. Rapha’s fa­ther needs cash to in­vest in shady deals with Chi­nese busi­ness­men; Es­ther wants money for re­mod­elling their sup­pos­edly per­fect home. As an­other writer has ob­served, all un­happy fam­i­lies are un­happy in their own way. This is a rich and sat­is­fy­ing film from one of the finest French film­mak­ers at work to­day.

EPIC is a com­puter-an­i­mated fan­tasy based on a chil­dren’s book by Wil­liam Joyce. And I was im­me­di­ately put off by its pre­ten­tious and un­in­for­ma­tive ti­tle. Epic? Epic what? No doubt the word fits more eas­ily on to movie posters than the ti­tle of Joyce’s book, The Leaf Men and

the Brave Good Bugs. But what does it mean? The di­rec­tor is Chris Wedge, who also di­rected

Ice Age and Ro­bots, two other films from the Fox an­i­ma­tion stu­dio, Blue Sky. Wedge is on record as say­ing that with Epic, ‘‘ We wanted to make a gi­gan­tic ac­tion-ad­ven­ture movie . . . on the scale of Star Wars.’’ I don’t think he’s suc­ceeded, but sus­pect Gi­gan­tic Ac­tion­Ad­ven­ture Movie would have made a bet­ter ti­tle than Epic.

The last film I saw from the Blue Sky peo­ple was Hor­ton Hears a Who!, based on one of Dr Seuss’s books for young read­ers. This one isn’t men­tioned in the pub­lic­ity for Epic, per­haps be­cause the sto­ries are much the same. Both films are about tiny for­est crea­tures threat­ened by pow­er­ful de­struc­tive forces. In the Dr Seuss film they were called Whos (from Who-ville), and the vil­lain of the story was a kan­ga­roo who doesn’t be­lieve there’s any such thing as a Who: ‘‘ If you can’t see it, can’t hear it and can’t smell it, it doesn’t ex­ist.’’

In Epic, a crack­pot an­thro­pol­o­gist called Pro­fes­sor Bomba (voiced by Ja­son Sudeikis) ob­serves: ‘‘ Just be­cause you can’t see some­thing doesn’t mean it’s not there.’’ While it’s good to hear th­ese philo­soph­i­cal in­sights voiced in a kids’ cartoon, Epic is not your or­di­nary kids’ cartoon. Nor is it your or­di­nary gi­gan­tic ac­tion-ad­ven­ture movie on the scale of

Star Wars. It’s like a mix­ture of Mon­sters Inc and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, with many an eco-friendly ref­er­ence to the bio­di­ver­sity of for­est life and the beauty of the nat­u­ral world.

Un­for­tu­nately, the plot is hope­lessly com­pli­cated. There are far too many char­ac­ters for young au­di­ences to take in, not to men­tion their par­ents or guardians. And for this I blame the film­mak­ers rather than Joyce. In so far as I could fol­low the plot, a war is be­ing waged be­tween the Leaf­men, the in­vis­i­ble good guys who live in leaves and flow­ers, and their nat­u­ral en­e­mies the Bog­gans, evil crea­tures armed with deadly ar­rows and ruled by the hideous Man­drake (voiced by Christoph Waltz), who plans to de­stroy the for­est. It’s a war be­tween con­tend­ing civil­i­sa­tions and in that re­spect, per­haps, com­par­isons with Star

Wars may be jus­ti­fied. Is Ronin, the heroic Leaf­man leader (Colin Far­rell), an­other Han Solo? Is the spunky young Nod (Josh Hutch­er­son) meant to be Luke Sky­walker and the pro­fes­sor’s savvy daugh­ter (Amanda Seyfried) Princess Leia? You could make a case, per­haps, but if I were run­ning the Blue Sky pub­lic­ity depart­ment I wouldn’t press it too far.

It’s a re­lief to find a com­puter-an­i­ma­tion film in which the char­ac­ters aren’t all freaks, bugs, fish, ro­bots or cars. Epic stars real peo­ple — or at least, char­ac­ters in recog­nis­ably hu­man form — and it is their sto­ries we care about. There is some sen­ti­men­tal busi­ness in­volv­ing the nutty pro­fes­sor and his daugh­ter, known as MK (short for Mary Kather­ine). When MK is mag­i­cally re­duced to the size of Leaf­men, ob­jects in the nat­u­ral world — her lit­tle dog, a mouse — take on fright­en­ing pro­por­tions. MK’s other prob­lem is how to re­gain her nor­mal size and re­turn to the fa­mil­iar world. This was also the heroine’s prob­lem in Alice

in Won­der­land, which had a sim­pler story-line and a good deal more charm.

As usual with kids’ an­i­ma­tion films, there is far too much noise, too much fran­tic ac­tion and point­less spec­ta­cle, with lit­tle sense of at­mos­phere or mys­tery. But we can be grate­ful for some lovely 3-D vi­su­als, some lik­able char­ac­ters, some fine comic touches in­volv­ing a snail and a slug, and, yes, some thoughtful ideas. It’s prob­a­bly the best school hol­i­day fare on of­fer at the mo­ment.

Ernst Umhauer and Fabrice Lu­chini in In

the House, main pic­ture; and Epic ac­tion, left

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