In the House: The French Middle Class Is the Master of French Culture
I once heard in a London School of Economics lecture that the real struggle in Europe has not been between the rich and the poor but between the middle class and the working class. This struggle has two fronts: One is financial and the other is cultural. In the UK, this line of thinking argues: The middle class lost on the cultural front and won on the financial one, and the working class lost on the financial front and won on the cultural one. All one has to do is look at British music, newspapers, and TV shows to see the evidence of this working-class victory. In France, however, the opposite happened: The middle class lost on the financial front to the working class, who continue to enjoy generous social benefits. But when it comes to culture, the middle class dominates that society. Evidence of this can be found many places, one of which is François Ozon's new and thoroughly entertaining film In the House.
The movie is not just about middle-class families, spaces, occupations, and concerns, but also the victory of their culture, which is high culture, over low culture. In the film, things like soap operas are recognized as inferior to refined novels or works of art. The star of the film is a teenager named Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who studies at the Lycée Gustave Flaubert and writes stories for his literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) about his obsession with Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), the middle-class mother of his school friend Rapha (Bastien Ughetto).
The literature teacher is childless and married to an art dealer, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). He reads and teaches only the classics and modernist fiction, and thinks he has found in Claude a rare and promising literary genius. But Claude is really just a creepy voyeur who wants to fuck his friend's mother. In one scene, Claude breaks into Rapha's house when he and his parents are out, finds a pair of red high-heel shoes in Esther's wardrobe, and enjoys "the singular scent of a middle-class woman."
As the teacher becomes more and more obsessed with the stories of his student's obsession with the mother of this friend, we move between comedy and suspense. In one moment, we are in Billy Wilder's world, in the next, in Alfred Hitchcock's. The final result of all this is a very satisfying movie. The French middle class is in the house.