Ozon in the House: French auteur directs stellar cast in tale of voyeurism

There are those very rare films that grab you right away and hold you, with a combination of wit, verve, technique, a perfect cast and an irresistibly compelling premise. In the House surely is one of them, as François Ozon, with an almost demonically delightful assurance, brings a bracingly fresh slant to that most cinematic of protagonists, the voyeur, in the disaffected 16-year-old person of Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). Claude is a student who becomes obsessed with the supposedly perfect life of a classmate, Rafa Artole (Bastien Ughetto), who revels in the warmth of his lovingly close and supportive parents (Denis Ménochet and Emmanuelle Seigner).

Claude turns his spying on the family into papers for his literature class, which enflame the attention of his professor (Fabrice Luchini) and his gallery-owner wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), who devour his writings and avidly await their next installment. This fascination soon brings up certain questions and definite hairline cracks in their own “perfect” marriage.

We met with the prolific French director in New York during the annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series. In the House opens in limited release on April 19 via Cohen Media Group.

Film Journal International: This could very well be my favorite film of yours. Like a total master, you pull the audience completely in and then proceed to play with us, and we movie lovers—all voyeurs at heart—are just enslaved. Where did your idea for this come from?
François Ozon: A Spanish play I saw in Paris. An actress friend of mine was in it and she said, “Come, come.” And I didn’t want to go because I’m very often invited by actors to go to the theatre, but when I saw its title, The Boy in the Last Row, it was quite intriguing. And she was right, the story was very good and I recognized myself in the character. I decided to try to do an adaptation, but it was very difficult because it was very theatrical and I needed to make something cinematographic. There were other movies I adapted from plays, like 8 Women, which were very theatrical onscreen too, but I didn’t want that for this. I had to change many things and change the characters and do my own material. The difficulty was that the author of the play, Juan Mayorga, was alive. He’s about 45—quite young—and well-known in Spain, and I had to say to him, “I have to change things.” But he’s very clever, very smart and said, “I expect you to do that. Do what you want. It’s your film.” And when he saw the film he was very happy and said, “You respected the spirit of my work.”

FJI: I don’t think the magnificent Fabrice Luchini has ever been better than here, in a role that he was born to play.
FO: I worked with him in Potiche, but he was sad during that one. He played the bad character—the boss—and he kept saying, “It’s the film of Catherine Deneuve, it’s not my film.” He is a huge star in France, and for this film he was really the center of the story. He loved the character because he felt very close to him. We think of Luchini as being like a teacher of French literature anyway, and he had the passion and was able to communicate about French literature for the film.

FJI: He is such a chameleonic actor. I interviewed the director Anne Fontaine about him, who was involved with him personally, and she said when they were together, people always thought he was gay.
FO: Yes. He likes to play with that.

FJI: But I found the ending you gave him so sad, having lost everything, sitting in the park like a homeless person.
FO: It’s not sad, it’s melancholy. I think the end, yes, can be sad, because he’s a depressed teacher, but actually it was a happy ending for me. It’s a new couple, the student and teacher, who understand that they need each other to finish their stories. It’s true that people who are not adapted to reality have to live in fiction and tell stories. That’s why I’m close to them, but at the same time they are still alive and excited about the new story in front of them, so life goes on.

FJI: Ernst Umhauer was fantastic, so convincing, intriguing and sympathetic, despite his character’s flaws.
FO: When I decided to do the film, I thought I have to find someone very strong. It’s a very difficult part, as a big part of the film is on the shoulders of Claude. So I did a big casting and saw many young boys of 16. Very quickly I realized that it was impossible to have someone so young, because you need a real maturity to play such a part.

So I saw older guys and I met Ernst, who was 21 but looks 16, which was perfect and even better for me. He is very smart and understood the character and was so good. He has a beautiful face, like an angel, but at the same time very strong eyes. Claude is a voyeur, so I needed someone who has great eyes and a great look.

FJI: The entire film is so well-cast. I loved Denis Ménochet as a macho kind of French father you rarely see, so funny, strong and sexy, coupled with Emmanuelle Seigner, who is so different and touching here.
FO: Ménochet was in the first scene of Inglourious Basterds. A very good French actor, who speaks fluent English, actually. He looks like an American father, with that moustache!
Emmanuelle is a great actress. She has a kind of sadness along with her sexiness, and I wanted to show that. She’s usually used to being very aggressive sexually, and in my film I wanted something melancholy, tender and sweet. Yet she’s the kind of mother every boy wants to fuck. You say “MILF” here? And I think Emmanuelle liked to be able to excite a young person, after being 40 years old. Many do.

And Bastein Ughetto is a great actor whom I saw in the theatre. He’s a totally trained classical actor.

FJI: How did Kristin Scott Thomas become involved?

FO: She is an actress I really love. She has a great career in France and is part of a great tradition of English actresses coming to live in France because there are some very good parts, especially after you are 40 years old—like Jane Birkin and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, who actually is part French.

I wanted to work with her for a long time, and it was important for me in the film to find the real chemistry between Germain and his wife, because there are lots of fights about art. They had to be funny and in the spirit of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, so I thought it would be a good idea to have Kristin because she has the same kind of theatre background as Fabrice, and it worked very well for me.

FJI: You have become such a master of the medium now. The film looks great and is orchestrated with the smoothness of a Hitchcock. Filmmaking seems like second nature to you. Do you feel all that assurance now?
FO: Thank you. I love it and have found my place. It feels very comfortable for me and with this movie it was fun to find the right way to adapt my mise-en-scène to the personality of Claude. I had to emphasize stuff in his character and it was a way for me to play with genre in the same film. At one moment, you have the feeling the story will be a comedy, and after it becomes a tragedy and then a thriller. You don’t know what will happen and it was quite fun to try these different options in the film.

In the play, it was just big conversations. That’s the richness of cinema: You can explain two pages of dialogue in just one shot and understand everything. Our shooting was two months and the whole process was quick.

The easiness in my directing depends on the film. This one was quite easy because I knew what I wanted to do. It was clear because it’s very close to my world, it spoke of my own work and love of writing.

FJI: You really caught the differing lives of Claude and Rapha, who lives in a kind of very American-looking “perfect” suburb we never associate with France.
FO: It was like an American suburb; my idea was to stylize it because we have such an invasion of American culture in Europe—music, movies, TV, etc.—and I wanted to get the irony of that. Also, to deal with things like everyone being obsessed with China.
Actually, that suburb does exist. It’s quite new, close to Paris, mostly for old people, but quite new in France, and perhaps that’s our future.

For Claude, it was important to show his social background, so you understand why he’s so fascinated by this perfect family. You see his father and his house and suddenly you feel uncomfortable, and realize that’s why.

FJI: I guess we all yearn for the perfect family. Did you?
FO: I had a normal childhood, but, like many, we were very conservative. We all dream of the perfect house and family. I think I was close to Claude, but don’t come from the same background. My parents were intellectuals, teachers.

FJI: Your final shot is amazing, so virtuosic, so Rear Window. How the hell did you do that?
FO: That was done in one shot. I didn’t think it would actually work in real life, so we were very happy when it did and we didn’t have to do it with special effects.

FJI: How was In the House received in France?
FO: It was a huge success and we were surprised because we thought the film would be too intellectual, and quite difficult. But we did more than one million admissions, and for such a film, that was really great. It was low-budget, so it was very successful.

FJI: Who did that crazy erotic art in Kristin’s gallery?

FO: You liked it? We had it made, of course. It wasn’t real art, although you can see things like that in galleries. That was funny, because at the end of the film, the crew usually wants to keep the furniture from the film. We asked, “Who wants the cross of penises?” But nobody wanted it.

FJI: Potiche was such fun, too. How was working with Gérard Depardieu?
FO: I love him as an actor, think he’s a genius. We had a lot of pleasure because he was so happy to work again with Catherine Deneuve. They are kind of an iconic couple for the French, so it was a real pleasure to have them together on the same set. For me, it was like a dream: two legends of French cinema! He was very easy to work with, but at the same time he is someone who is quite depressed—the death of his son, his other worries. He has a lot of conflict, but during my shoot he was very happy and everything was great.

The end of his career is quite difficult, like the end of Marlon Brando. These kinds of geniuses who want to destroy everything around them. Quite sad. There are many opinions about him in France right now, about his taxes, money and leaving the country and going to Russia. Everybody is very aggressive against him now because he did some stupid things, but I like him. He’s a great actor and, like you say, a national treasure.

FJI: And how was Deneuve on Potiche? I remember a time when you were not big admirers of each other.
FO: Now with her, it’s great. I think when we did 8 Women she didn’t get what I wanted to do, didn’t understand what were my options. But when she saw the film, she said, “Oh, it’s great!” She was surprised and now we have a very good relationship, but during the shooting it was quite difficult. During Potiche, it was a dream. She was so happy to do the film, loved her character of Suzanne Pujol, and working again with Gérard.

FJI: You worked with that other film legend, Jeanne Moreau, on Time to Leave.
FO: A very sad movie but I think she’s very strong in it, a great actress, very clever and, like all the French actresses, very seductive.

FJI: What’s coming up for you?
FO: I just finished a new film called Jeune et jolie [Young and Beautiful], a portrait of a 17-year-old girl and about her discovery of sexuality. Yes, there are some beautiful people in it. I have cast a young actress nobody knows named Marine Vacth and I think she’s amazing in it. It’s not a big cast, but Charlotte Rampling is in it.

I try to make a movie a year. It’s difficult, but financing them is okay because they are not big-budget. I don’t need special effects and things; my films are about intimacy and privacy, so they are not difficult to finance.

FJI: Would you ever want to make a movie in America? I imagine there’s going to be interest in doing a remake of this one, for sure.
FO: Yes, I know there is already some interest in an American remake. I’m not sure I would be able to adapt myself to your system, because the producer has the power of final cut. They propose many things to me, but very often it’s just a remake of one of my old films. But maybe one day…