“There are no innocent bystanders…what are they doing there in the first place?”

– William S. Burroughs, Exterminator!

To be continued….the ultimate cliffhanger. The cliffhanger technique may be one of the most overused plot devices in literature, yet when used cleverly, has been done so to great effect. The popularisation of the cliffhanger began with Victorian serials, including the works of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. The authors’ works were initially published in serialised installments every month, and so the stories were imbued with a particular rhythm, punctuated by cliffhanger at the end of each installment so that the public was sufficiently tantalised into looking forward to the next one. This technique contains into modern entertainment, as television serials and end-of-season episodes often end with such a cliffhanger as to propel the audience into speculative agony until the next one begins. Overused, perhaps – but no less effective. This idea of compelling the reader through the power of literature into a web of intrigue is at the heart of Dans le maison, enticing not only the characters within the film, but doubly the audience, completing a metafictional arc of who is really manipulating whom.

As a director, Ozon has a keen eye for the menace in the mundane. Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is an orthodox, if not disillusioned, professor at the lycee, casting a cynical eye over the droves of prosaic students. The proverbial spell is broken by Claude (Ernst Umhauer), whose report on the topic “What I did last weekend”, offers a significantly more interesting slice of pedagogical life. Claude’s innocuously condescending observations of his best friend’s family curiously inveigle Germain and his wife, as they remain hooked with every addition to the story. One can easily see Claude as a Scheherazade-like figure, enticing and seducing German’s Sultan with each installment of his story; Claude ends each section with à suivre (‘to follow’, or ‘to be continued…’). Germain may think that he, in a position of authority, is the one instructing his pupil, but as the narrative draws on, it becomes decidedly evident that Germain himself is being drawn into the web of this fictional story – or is it truly fictional? The lines between reality and imagination become murky very quickly, and German becomes a willing participant in Claude’s irreverent tale. We are shown the events as they occur in Claude’s piece, but after Germain edits, the rewrites are also shown, leading us to wonder which version is the correct one. Is the initial draft the fantasy, or the rewrite – or both?

The very nature of voyeurism lingers heavily over the drama, as Germain and his wife – and we, the audience – are subject to interpretations and reinterpretations of events which straddle the line between truth and untruth. They and we are witness to seemingly unremarkable events, tinged with Claude’s pithy observations of his friend’s middle-class family life, complete with boorish father and bored, attractive mother. Germain and his wife await with bated breath and then devour each new ‘episode’ in Claude’s drama, observing with patronising condescension the pedestrian workings of a family.  More than just being a subtle attack on class warfare (Claude notes “the singular scent of a middle-class woman” dripping off the mother), it questions the role of the audience in a narrative. As an audience, we watch films to peer into others’ lives – perhaps not so very different from voyeurism after all.

Germain’s motivations are multifold in possibility, and become the subject of the drama itself – is it merely the scholarly support and encouragement of a teacher, or are there more selfish and desperate reasons for seeing Claude’s narrative through to the end? As a failed writer himself, it could be that Germain’s investment in Claude’s writing stems from a self-motivated need to be the author in his own life narrative once again, fulfilling the desire for agency he has lost. Is Germain attempting to fill the void of his own lack of children, or does he subliminally desire the friend’s mother herself, using Claude as a proxy? Whatever the reasons for the psychodynamic tension which pulses along like a Hitchcockian thriller, this wry and caustic study of banality begs the question of our role in the lives of others – passive spectators or willing participants? The film raises fascinating questions about storytelling and literary construction, regarding the reliability of the narrator, the role of the reader, and who is ultimately responsible for the outcome. In any case, it is clear that it will keep Germain – and indeed, us – coming back for more (à suivre…).