Interview/ François Ozon: In The House

François Ozon’s new drama In The House finds a literature teacher challenged by the vivid imagination of a gifted student

By Aurelie Godet

What inspired this particular story?

It is based on a play, ‘The Boy in the Last Row’ by Juan Mayorga. I was interested in the theme of education and, for some time, had wanted to explore the relationship between a teacher and student. Its treatment in the play is quite original because that relationship is not one-way, and even in this two-way exchange, the roles are often reversed. There’s a real complicity between teacher and student. It also explores creation and storytelling. All this theoretical material seemed ripe for a playful film adaptation.

Can you describe your writing process?

This case is particular because it is an adaptation which implies that you have to sacrifice some elements of the original material. I kept what touched me the most in the play, which is subject to my own interpretation and feelings when reading it. Also, what elements echo or makes sense with my own work. But I think I remained faithful to the spirit of the original text. It’s about a writer who attempts to arrange reality according to his desires.

Is this a reflection of your faith in the power of storytelling?

Indeed this is a film about the power of fiction over reality. I could easily share the bench with the characters we see at the end of the film. The power of fiction is great and, as such, dangerous. But it is as potent as a drug and you become addicted to it, exactly as the student is, and the teacher and his wife are to the boy’s stories.

How does the film’s visual aesthetic inform this?

I had to play on different levels, the mise-en-scene had to differentiate fiction and reality, since we move between one and the other. But then everything is intermingled and seen on the same level. In the confusion the audience are meant to be a little bit lost between reality and fiction, not knowing in which world they are.

Lies and manipulation are a constant in your work. Do you have a particular interest in gifted manipulators?

Yes. Every writer and film director is a manipulator of sorts. It’s essential to our craft, just as it is essential for Sheherazade to tell a story to save her own life. Creating desire is a component of the artist’s job. You must trigger interest, seduce even, and I don’t mean that in any derogatory way.

The film also looks at selfishness and how it is key to creativity.

It’s more about insouciance or unconcern than selfishness – about letting fiction take control over reality. To be a good storyteller you should be prepared for collateral damage within the real world. Both characters ‘burn their wings’ – are wounded in the process – because they confuse fiction with reality. That’s how great the power of imagination and storytelling is.

You chose to cast Fabrice Luchini once again. Why was he perfect for the role and what is it like working with him?

His character in Potiche was much less likable. He was a caricature of a misogynist. You can relate more to his part in this film. He is a man suffering from depression and his bright student enables him to regain his taste for teaching. Luchini was an obvious choice for a professor of literature. In France, he’s identified as a promoter of French literature – he regularly performs one-man shows based on the texts of La Fontaine and Céline for example, which he knows by heart. He has a real taste for relaying great texts and he has a unique ability to impart his knowledge without ever boring his audience. If he hadn’t accepted the part, I would probably have given up on the film altogether. It might not show, but he has a lot of dialogue in the film, and he is the only actor who is able to deliver all of it with such a sense of ease.

You also worked with composer Philippe Rombi again. How has your relationship developed?

There are no rules in the way we collaborate; it depends on each film. He sometimes gets involved later on, once the film is finished. But in the case of Swimming Pool and In The House he was involved from early on. The music is very important in this film, as it changes with Claude’s storytelling. The score has to follow the styles of the stories – the musical colour adapts to the various universes the characters occupy.

Who do you see yourself in most: the experienced teacher or the gifted student?

I identify with both! And I alternate from one to the other. I permanently feel like I’m learning, like the young man. But I did acquire some form of maturity with the years, and control over the craft of storytelling. I’m definitely still a student, though.

Do you consider yourself a cinephile?

Yes of course. I’m interested in many filmmakers, but for this film in particular, it was mostly writers I had in mind, many of whom are quoted in the film. And, of course, there is always Hitchcock. He was the director who accepted and promoted the definition of filmmaking as an art of manipulation and voyeurism.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

In The House opens on Fri 29 March