Two of the cinema’s finest young auteurs, François Ozon and Jeff Nichols, have new films out between this week and next that demand attention even if they fall a bit short of the directors’ best work to date.
The 45-year old, openly gay Ozon has been cranking out international hits such as 8 Women, Swimming Pool and Potiche since 1998, and his new work Young & Pretty was just chosen to be in competition at next month’s Cannes Film Festival. Ozon’s 2012 film In theHouse is making its US debut today in Los Angeles and New York before expanding. While essentially a comedy adapted from a Spanish play, it is often disturbing in its depiction of a high school student with a troubled background, Claude (striking discovery Ernst Umhauer) who ingratiates himself into a classmate’s seemingly happy, middle-class family. Claude documents his observations of the family in writing assignments for his literature teacher, Germain (veteran French actor Fabrice Luchini). Increasingly drawn into Claude’s voyeuristic prose, Germain begins to share them with his wife (the ever lovely Kristin Scott Thomas) but gradually loses perspective and begins to make unethical decisions in defense of Claude and his writing.
Claude’s entrée into the Rapha household brings its own growing set of moral compromises, which primarily involve his attraction to his friend’s mother (played by Emmanuelle Seigner, aka Mrs. Roman Polanski) and toying with his friend’s budding homosexuality. Ozon’s screenplay uses the scenario to raise valuable questions about literary license, the differences between equality and uniformity, respect for others and “the dictatorship of sex.” I also thoroughly enjoyed his technique of having Germain pop up in unexpected ways within the action of Claude’s storytelling.
In the end, though, I found In the House less focused than most of Ozon’s previous films. It is difficult to decide with which character we as viewers and pseudo-participants are supposed to empathize. This could well be intentional, but when one’s options are a junior sociopath, a failed writer-turned-scheming schoolteacher and a bored housewife obsessed with home improvements, among others, none of them is appealing. Despite excellent performances as well as a nice original music score by Philippe Rombi, In the House is more off-putting than fully satisfying in the end.
Jeff Nichols’ Mud, meanwhile, is the 34-year old writer-director’s third feature and follow up to 2011’s sensational Take Shelter. Lionsgate will release Mud nationwide on April 26. In this Mark Twain-inspired saga, a modern-day Tom and Huck by the names of Ellis and Neckbone (talented newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, respectively) cross paths with the mystical vagabond of the movie’s title. Matthew McConaughey, hot off his acclaimed gay or gay-ish turns in last year’s MagicMike and The Paperboy, stars as Mud. Clad in a worn yet protective shirt (Don’t worry, boys and girls: he takes if off frequently enough) as well as boots with crosses fashioned out of nails in their heels “to ward off evil spirits,” Mud is discovered living in a boat displaced by Mississippi river flooding to the treetops of a remote island.
Mud assures Ellis and Neckbone that “there are fierce powers at work in the world,” and soon enough the positive forces of romantic and parental love are pitted against an evil force of retribution. Several years earlier, Mud killed the eldest son of a Texas gangster who was abusing Juniper, the love of Mud’s life played by Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon. Juniper has come to town presumably so she and Mud can run away together to a safe place but so have the gangster’s minions, who are intent on killing Mud. Ellis and Neckbone, idealistic and curious to their detriment, naively offer to serve as go-betweens for Mud and Juniper and inadvertently place themselves in grave danger.
Adolescent boys and their fathers will find much to appreciate and bond over in Mud but the movie’s slow-as-molasses, 130-minute running time and occasional bursts of Scorsese-esque violence prevent it from being a true family film. Also, while the dialogue Nichols has crafted is excellent, his character development is weak when it comes to Juniper. We learn next to nothing about what makes Mud’s lady love tick or why she makes some of the baffling decisions she does during the film’s course. Witherspoon does fine with what she has to work with, chiefly a bird tattoo, a short skirt and a pair of sky-high sandal heels but it gets harder to care about Juniper; Becky Thatcher she ain’t. The remainder of the cast — which also includes out actress Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker and Nichols regular Michael Shannon, who will next be seen as General Zod in Man of Steel — are all superb in their decidedly better-written roles.
Flawed though they are, Mud and In the House are still stronger cinematic offerings than most of what is currently playing, largely due to the immense talents of their chief craftsmen.
In the House: B-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest, Rage Monthly Magazine and Echo Magazine.