Writer-director François Ozon likes games. His films play around with chronology, include illusory people or unreal settings and invariably spring surprises – whether silly or deadly – on us and on his unsuspecting characters.
“In the House” represents the culmination of this style. It’s partly real and partly a fable, full of events that might have happened or could never have happened, with intrigues that defy us to take them seriously. It’s a clever cliffhanger, though perhaps not as clever as he thinks.
“House” starts more mundanely than most of his work. Germain (Fabrice Luchini), who teaches French literature, begins another dull year at Gustave Flaubert School. (That’s an in-joke of sorts: Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” is about a bored woman who drifts into an affair with the wrong person.) His sophomores disappoint him, as usual, except for 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer).
Claude, a student with a long-gone mother and unemployed father, turns in the first chapter of a creative writing assignment about how he spent the weekend. He has been tutoring Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), a kid who needs help in math, and spying on Rapha’s middle-class family.
Germain disapproves of Claude’s snarky, judgmental tone, but he admires the construction of the story. He asks to see more chapters, slightly disgusted by his own voyeurism about Rapha’s parents.
Claude insinuates himself deeper into that family, as a smarter surrogate son for the dad (Denis Ménochet) and a possible lover for the restless mom (Emmanuelle Seigner), and Germain can’t stop reading. When Claude says the family is likely to boot him and hire a real tutor, Germain steals a math test and gives it to Claude to “coach” Rapha.
It’s rarely necessary or even possible to care about the emotional lives of Ozon’s characters, who merely serve his crafty narrative purposes. So it doesn’t really matter whether Rapha’s mom and dad reconcile, or whether Germain’s wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) will be able to find a best-selling artist and convince two gallery owners to keep her on as manager. (This subplot mainly gives Ozon a chance to take a few swipes at the triviality of modern art.)
So we ponder Claude’s motives instead. Does he envy Rapha’s stable home life and want to ruin it? Is his alleged passion for the mom sincere? Does he want to humiliate the parents for condescending to him, at least in his eyes? Are events in his stories even happening at all? (We get virtually no confirming evidence.)
Ozon would have delivered a neat, Hitchcockian-themed thriller if that were the main thing on his mind, but he can’t stop inventing twists. He goes too far at last, with a series of less and less probable events; Claude even begins to write about things that can’t have happened yet, and then they do happen. (Or so it seems.)
The acting rings true. Umhauer straddles the line between a naïveté that may be assumed and a creepy pleasure in others’ discomfort, and the rest don’t attempt to make characters deeper or more appealing than they are. These veterans realize they’re all playing cogs in the director’s plot-twisting machine.
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