Last week at the Empire film awards, Dame Helen Mirren openly criticised Skyfall director Sam Mendes for not citing, during his acceptance speech, a single woman working behind the camera as an inspiration to his work. Women within the film industry are most prominent as actors than any other role. In fact, it wasn’t until 2010 that a woman won the Oscar for best director.
I’m not giving out any awards today but I would like to celebrate the talent of English actor Kristen Scott Thomas, a creative who has found a second lease of life in her film career in France. To reinforce the point of inequality, Scott Thomas also commented that in the UK she can only get relatively small supporting roles, whereas in France she is still in demand as a leading lady. She attributes this to our industries fear of ageing; in a recent interview with The Independent, she commented: “They don’t want leading ladies that are over 50. It’s the truth! It’s the truth!”
Fortunately, French directors have a different attitude. In her latest film In the House, directed by François Ozon, Scott Thomas plays the 50 plus wife of disillusioned school teacher played by Fabrice Luchini. The story opens with the new school year, Luchini’s character Germain is struggling to find hope in his latest flux of students until he comes across a beguiling student played by Ernst Umhauer. Set the unextraordinary task of describing his weekend, the pupil writes a passage about a classmate. Intrigued by his seemingly perfect family, Umhauer’s character describes his infiltration into the household in the guise of a friend and maths tutor; narrating his observations to his own voyeuristic tutor. Of course, this writing is not friendly but dark, comic and cruel. Germain brings these stories home and husband and wife read them debating the morals and questioning where the truth lies within the writing. The naïve teacher’s greedy desire to inspire a young mind and showcase his abilities in the theory of writing sees him fall down a slippery slope as the young student flatters and manipulates his ego.
What is clever about the film is its subversion; the viewer is gently drawn into the story believing everything that the pupil writes. His experiences with the family though are seen through his writing but as his teacher begins to test his ability to apply the principles of narration things start to distort. As he refines and rewrites his story its foundations begin to twist. The viewer suddenly finds themselves drawn into an unsettling state where they can no longer trust their own observations. Just as the characters are deceiving each other the audience can identify a strange parallel to the story, we too are tricked by the filmmakers, they are holding a mirror to us and showing us what we desire to see. This is done so confidently that leaving the cinema although a conclusion has been reached you have to choose if you believe how it got there.
In the House is a great vehicle for Kristen Scott Thomas and I hope that the success of this film emphasises that women in their 50s should have major roles in film but, in truth, Scott Thomas’ performance does this all on its own. The characters are carefully balanced there is no hero, no shining moral compass enabling the viewer to judge each individual’s experience equally as the story develops. There are subtle hints throughout on how things will end but nothing is a given as the film becomes increasingly surreal. All in all. In The House is definitely worth watching it is a classy, sophisticated affair; well written, intelligent and demanding.