François Ozon - site officiel

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Interview with Ernst Umhauer

Ernst Umhauer - Dans la maisonHow did you feel when you read the script for IN THE HOUSE?

I was struck by the similarities between Claude and myself. At his age, I wasn't "the boy in the last row", I was the boy in the second-to-last row! And like Claude, I was pretty good at writing but not much else. Of course Claude and I are also very different. We don't have the same background, we weren't born in the same place, we don't have the same aspirations. I would never go to people's house to ruin their lives! But it was unnerving, especially in my first major role, to find myself back in my teens and back in school, a place I'd been so anxious to leave.

How would you define Claude?

Claude is the boy in the last row who sees everything, hears everything, has a wild imagination and is ready to do whatever it takes to make his young writer's fantasies come to life. In order to write, he needs to make things happen in real life. Gradually this leads to comical situations. He confuses his writing with reality and turns everything in his path upside-down. He can be prickly and caustic because he hasn't been loved, and his lack of worldly knowledge gets him into trouble. He has no distance, it takes him a long time to realize his words are stinging and can do damage. He's smart, but not very conscious of his responsibility.

Claude is an innocent but also a manipulator, both scary and touching. How do you approach such a character?

I thought a lot about him in advance, but when it came time to play him, all my intellectualizing fell by the wayside and intuition took over. As an actor, my main job is to transcribe emotions. Claude is both Machiavellian and innocent. He does some shady stuff, but I think most of it comes from age-based awkwardness.

How would you describe working with François Ozon?

François figured me out pretty quickly and knew how to find the right words to get the right energy from me at the right time. We didn't talk about the character much, but we rehearsed, worked on the choreography of the scenes and somehow managed to get on the same page, sometimes simply through an exchange of glances. It's hard to put this job into words and I lack comparison with other directors. One thing I can say is that the pace of the shoot was very fast, everything moved very quickly.

Did you play differently according to whether Claude was in reality or in his writing?

François wanted the writing scenes to be as concrete as the real scenes so everything would blend together - making dreams and imagination an integral part of real life. But Claude is undoubtedly a bit more cheeky and extraverted in the writing scenes. Knowing we were in the fiction part, I felt more creative and freer and didn't play exactly the same way.

Dans la maisonA lot of your acting was done in voiceover. Did you find the tone right away?

François was right behind me, carefully listening to each sentence. If something was off, he'd say, "More sensual, more neutral..." I had a tendency to aim for irony, but François would warn me, "The text is ironic enough on its own, no need to add to it." It was an interesting exercise, trying to "play" the writing when the words were enough on their own. For example, "An odor caught my attention. The singular scent of a middle-class woman." Much is revealed about Claude with just this sentence.
We recorded a first version of the voiceover before the shoot so François could evaluate the timing of the scenes. We did it again after the shoot, to take into account technical problems and modifications in the text. The second time, being able to picture the shoot while I did it made it easier. While they were editing, I recorded a lot of the voiceovers at home in Cherbourg and sent them by email to François.

Isn't it difficult to record yourself all alone that way, cut off from the atmosphere of the shoot?

No, I'm used to it. My father taught me early on how to read out loud, how to turn a phrase, how to place my voice. I always wanted to be an actor. I loved reading out loud, I'd try to find the right tone of voice to make my friends laugh.

What is Claude looking for in this "perfect" family?

Things he doesn't have. A family life, a father-son bond (his own father being an alcoholic in a wheelchair), a mother's love. Actually, beyond the love of a mother, he discovers the love of a woman with Esther. Thanks to her, he begins to put this new emotion into words as he simultaneously seeks to understand what his life would have been like if he'd been born into this family. He also comes to realize he isn't so badly off after all, Rapha's family is pretty strange! The love between them is strong, but they have a ridiculous side and he makes fun of them.

The house represents normality, in both the family and society. When it shuts itself off to Claude, it is as though a higher social class is also refusing him entry.

Claude is clearly conscious of the social dimension in the beginning but very quickly that aspect fades into the background. What he sees most of all is love in this family. The only person he really remains close to is from a higher social class than the family: his teacher, Germain.

The student-teacher relationship between Germain and Claude is very powerful.

Germain and Claude are two free agents, two total opposites who come together to create a fictional story. Their relationship is somewhat fraught at the start. If they don't click right away, it's partly because Claude is seeking a family more than a mentor and father figure, like his teacher.

Germain is a father figure for Claude but Claude is also running the show and teaching Germain a thing or two.

Yes, we are all eternal students. At the end, when Germain is drugged up on meds and finds himself in a weaker position, Claude truly takes on the role of son. He comes to visit him, comforts him, offers his help. In a real father-son relationship, this type of give-and-take is quite common.

What was it like meeting Fabrice Luchini?

I'd seen him read Céline in the theater when I was sixteen, Claude's age.
I'd always wanted to be an actor and seeing him on stage confirmed my desire. I thought, "I want to meet that guy!" without ever imagining I actually would.

Dans la maisonHow did you approach your first big role opposite such an experienced, voluble actor as Fabrice?

By listening to him! And wearing headphones between takes in order to concentrate! Fabrice is pretty much always on stage. It's impressive, you want to participate but you can see it just isn't possible. We didn't have much of a chance to talk before the shoot, but once on set we quickly saw eye to eye in our approach. It helps to start off with an actor like him. He puts so much energy into it, you feel you'd better put in as much and get as involved if you want to be on his level.
He and I mainly shot scenes at the high school, in echoing hallways, with lots of extras. The context was quite impersonal. Plus, he was playing my teacher, we needed to maintain a certain distance even though our characters do gradually develop a mutual trust. As a novice actor, I had pretty much the same relationship with Fabrice as Claude has with Germain.

And with the other actors?

With the others we shot in the studio, scenes that take place in the house. We had more time to talk, it was very friendly, we laughed a lot. Emmanuelle Seigner immediately took me under her wing. We hit it off right away. She has a singing career too and we talked more about music than cinema. In some ways, even physically, we resemble each other. Denis Ménochet was like a big brother to me. Bastien and I continued to have the same energy we'd had when we did our screen tests together.

How has Claude changed by the end of the film?

Reassured by Germain's attention, Claude has shed his dark side, his animosity, his fear of others. He's learned that his teacher is also a writer. It's something they share, but Germain wasn't as fortunate: he never had the kind of teacher he's been for Claude.