Just when it looked like 2013 and the summer season was finally picking up, this weekend happened.

Last Friday saw the release of After Earth, a CGI-laden demo reel for Jaden Smith, made as part of Will Smith’s continuing mission to make his family more collectively famous than most religious figures. What’s more, the film was directed and co-written by M. Night Shyamalan, whose presence has hilariously been disavowed by any and all advertisement for the film. A man who was supposed to be one of the next great filmmakers, reduced to being Will Smith’s bitch. And after this, he probably won’t be anyone at all. Sweet schadenfreude.

Then there’s Now You See Me, which was intriguing simply by the nature of its cast. It had veterans like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, reliable stars like Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, up-and-comers like Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, and Isla Fisher, and even the criminally underrated Melanie Laurent. Throw in a timely Robin Hood premise wrapped around a novel presentation and what could go wrong? Director Louis Leterrier (previously responsible for such spectacular mediocrities as The Incredible Hulk and the Clash of the Titans remake), that’s what.

Now You See Me has gotten mixed-to-negative reviews, while After Earth has gotten panned left and right. Things are so bad this weekend that neither one of the mainstream releases could topple last week’s champion, Fast & Furious 6, at the box office. As such, I’ve decided to forgo the mainstream releases this week and see if the arthouses could offer anything better.

I eventually settled on In the House, a French film that was sold to me as a clever and introspective dark comedy. That wasn’t exactly what I got, but it was still a fascinating little movie to watch and ponder over all the same.

Our protagonist for tonight is a failed author named Germain (Fabrice Luchini). Since he doesn’t have the talent to be a professional author, he instead teaches writing and literature at a prestigious high school in France. I assume he sucks at that too, because none of his students turn in anything remotely worth reading. Except one.

Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer) is a young man who turns in some exceptional essays, which prompts Germain to take the boy under his wing. The kicker, however, is in the subject matter. See, Claude has befriended a classmate (Rapha, played by Bastien Ughetto), and positioned himself as the boy’s math tutor. As such, he takes regular visits to Rapha’s household, writes about the tutoring sessions in intimate detail, and submits them to Germain for his assignments.

If you think that sounds bad enough, just wait.

Claude spends a great deal of ink (if you’ll pardon the phrasing) on the subject of Rapha’s gorgeous mother (Esther, played by Emmanuelle Seigner). Meanwhile, Rapha Sr. (Denis Menochet) is described as something of an oaf while Rapha Jr. barely has any role in the proceedings (in the first half, anyway). From all of this, you might think that Claude only got close to Rapha Jr. with the intention of seducing Esther, but of course it’s a lot more complicated than that.

By and by, we learn that Claude’s mother ran away when he was very young, and his father is an old invalid. Coupled with his descriptions of Rapha’s family as “the perfect family,” and it would seem that Claude is merely looking for a surrogate family. Then again, given his repeated sessions with Germain, maybe Claude is looking to his teacher for a surrogate father instead.

Claude is such a quiet cypher, working to manipulate so many people at once, that it’s never easy to tell just what his endgame is. To make things even more difficult, he’s of course a very unreliable narrator. Claude himself says that he doesn’t have the imagination to write about anything that doesn’t actually happen, though we see for ourselves on a number of occasions that he does. When we hear his accounts of what happened at Rapha’s house — or even when we see it firsthand! — we have to keep guessing how much Claude is massaging the truth.

Even so, it bears repeating that this is really Germain’s story. He starts out as a well-intentioned educator, brushing off Claude’s stories as adolescent fantasies as he tries to teach and encourage his student. Alas, Germain’s character arc is shaped more like a downward spiral. Things get especially bad when Germain and his advice play a direct and unwitting role in shaping Claude’s narrative: Not only does it make fiction that much harder to separate from reality, but it makes Germain that much more paranoid about the monster he may or may not have created.

Moreover, there’s the fact that Germain is clearly trying to live through Claude. That might not sound so bad with regards to a teacher and/or father figure coaching this boy to do things that the elder man never could. However, given the subject matter, that raises a whole number of squicky issues. If Claude is acting like a voyeur toward the family in general and Esther in particular, and if Germain is obsessively reading Claude’s papers, then what does that make Germain? Alternatively, if Claude’s accounts about Esther are purely fictional and Germain continues poring over them anyway, what then?

I just realized that I haven’t even talked about Germain’s wife yet. Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) is the manager of an art gallery, though her landlord has recently died and left the property to his twin sisters. As such, Jeanne is in quick and desperate need of finding art that will sell, lest her new bosses decide that the business is no longer viable and shut it down. Jeanne serves two purposes in this picture. First, she provides a grounded outsider’s perspective with regards to the main Claude/Germain storyline. Secondly, she helps explore the film’s primary theme of art.

The theme manifests in a number of ways, most prominently in Germain’s lessons with Claude. If nothing else, this movie serves as a remarkable class in Storytelling 101. Germain’s lectures are so detailed and engaging that even I was able to learn something new about writing from them. More importantly, however, is the issue of how Germain is manipulated by Claude’s stories. Just as any reader with a great story, Germain is desperate to know what happens next. Even so, the circumstances of Germain’s relationship with Claude — and the comparison of Esther and Rapha Sr. against his own stale marriage — push Germain to extremes that are nowhere near healthy.

However, that obsession is really only part of an even greater theme: The purpose of art. All throughout the film, there’s always the underlying question of what art is, why we need it, and what drives us to create it. At one point, Germain posits that art exists so that we can open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us. The ending of the film elegantly drives the point home, showing how the magic of storytelling can portray our mundane everyday lives in a totally new light. However, I would go a step further: Though the film never explicitly says as much, I think it also makes the case that art is only meant to enhance life without substituting it. After all, Germain and Claude both immerse themselves in Claude’s narrative to the degree that neither of them seem to know what’s real anymore, and their lives both get thoroughly gutted as a result.

In case it isn’t already obvious, there’s a lot to like about this movie. There’s some great imagery, the novel story is presented in many engaging ways, and the intriguing characters are all brought to vivid life through some fantastic performances. With all of that said, I find it very hard to detail the flaws in a movie this meta. As an example, there’s a point in Claude’s story in which he (or Claude’s fictional version of himself, take your pick) discovers an X-ray hidden in Esther’s desk. And while he’s snooping around her office, he doesn’t think to check her computer. I would be tempted to call the film out for having worthless story threads and plot holes, except that I don’t have to: Germain and Jeanne both call attention to them! They spend the entire movie critiquing Claude’s narrative, thereby critiquing the movie, so where am I supposed to come in?

All told, I found In the House to be a fascinating and very well-crafted movie. The film’s various meta aspects and tenuous grip on reality might easily have gotten out of control, but it was all presented in an engaging and manageable way. What’s more, it served to explore the purpose and nature of art in a very novel way, all while giving the top-notch cast a great deal to chew on.

If you have the least bit of appreciation for art of any kind (as you should, since you’re reading a movie review/discussion blog), you should definitely consider seeking this one out.

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