LESSON IN OBSESSIVENESS
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