Those with no experience in François Ozon’s complex films might initially mistake “In the House” for an inspirational teacher movie — and in its own wicked, French way, it is. The curmudgeonly, washed-up-novelist of an English teacher protagonist (Fabrice Luchini) may not find the motivation to inspire his home-room of 20 impressionable youths—“The worst class I’ve ever had!” he exclaims to his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)—in any conventional way, but he does take an interest in inspiring one student in particular. When asked to write about his weekend, 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer) recounts, in distinctive prose, the clever way he infiltrated the middle-class home of peer Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), whose family he’d watched at a distance for months as a way to escape his own lower-class existence. Gaining entry by offering to tutor his not-so-bright classmate, Claude seems to be looking for a way to seduce Rapha’s fetching mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). “To be continued,” the essay ends, and Mr. Germain is hooked and counseling Claude on his next.
Thus begins a long series of Claude’s essays—which at a certain point must just be written for the pupil’s pleasure, rather than actual class assignments—dramatized onscreen as Germain reads them. Claude’s stories of what happens inside Rapha’s home get progressively more sensational, as he not only comes onto Mom, but Dad (Denis Ménochet), too. And so, “In the House” becomes about man’s obsessions, and how we channel them into art as both creators and consumers. Claude, having watched Rapha’s family from the surrounding park over the summer, “Rear Window”-style, has developed a multitude of fantasies about them—of questionable healthiness—for which his essays function as an outlet. Whether the process is cathartic or feeds his obsession even further is up for debate. Or has the object of Claude’s desire become Germain, the sole audience-member for his steamy chronicles? (That is, if you don’t count Germain’s wife, who also becomes enraptured in Claude’s text.) And what does Germain get out of the essays, exactly? He’s so desperate for Claude to continue that he steals the math teacher’s exam answer-sheet to ensure Claude remains in good standing as Rapha’s tutor. Given that we naturally assume first-person stories to be autobiographical, is the experience of reading them the ultimate form of voyeurism?
Ozon, whose technical expertise is often overlooked because his films are drenched in passion, ensures that “In the House” is fit-and-finished to perfection. The multi-layered structure is edited with precision. The performances are spot-on, both for the soap opera unfolding within Claude’s text and that occurring outside of it, though making such a distinction nearly seems inappropriate of me, given how often the lines between the two blur. Ozon gets particularly strong work out of the young Ernst Unhauer, who must simultaneously play his own man—an expert manipulator—and the knowing object of Germain’s compulsive fascination. And all the little touches in the movie are special, from the name of the school (Lycée Gustave Flaubert) to a particularly hilarious parody of modern art galleries wedged into the first act. Perhaps “In the House” is too grounded in its own controlled artifice to ever have the far-reaching impact of a true masterpiece, but as an exercise exploring the at times perverse intimacy of the writer-reader dynamic, it’s damn ingenious.