‘In the House’: Who’s leading who?

April 18, 2013

in the house
Francois Ozon’s “In the House,” opening Friday (4/19/13) in limited release, gets in your head, slowly at first, then with greater and greater speed.

Initially seeming like a comedy about the vicarious voyeurism of a literature teacher at a Paris high school, it casually transforms itself into something else: a psychological thriller of sorts, in which what is real is never quite clear and never particularly important.

The always-fascinating Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, unexcited at the start of another school year trying to teach literature to adolescents. He’s seen correcting an assigned composition on what his students did the previous weekend; most of the papers leave him in despair because they are so inarticulate. But he comes across one that sparks his interest.

It is written by a student named Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), a 16-year-old who seems surprisingly confident in his writing – and who describes how he schemed his way into a fellow student’s house he’d been admiring.

Claude, it seems, has been studying classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) from afar and has decided that Rapha has the perfect family, something Claude craves. So he befriends Rapha by offering to help him study trigonometry and goes home with him after school. Then he waits until Rapha is working on a particularly difficult problem and uses the opportunity to explore the house.

It’s less that than his description of Rapha’s mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), that catches Germain’s eye: Claude’s writing is at once lascivious and judgmental. When he meets with Claude the next day, Germain explains how well-written he thought the story was, but cautions Claude about invading other people’s privacy, even if only in a school composition.

At which point Claude hands him his next assignment, already written – and offering further details of his ongoing encounters with Rapha and his family. He begins turning in a paper each day, creating the kind of breathless serial that once was a common form of public entertainment. Germain swallows the hook, sharing each new chapter of Claude’s adventure with his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has problems of her own with the small art gallery where she works.

Ozon seems to keep things light: We see Claude at Rapha’s house, even as we hear Germain reading his account of the events – and then looking up aghast when the story ends before he wants it to, with a blithe “To Be Continued.” At a couple of points, as we watch Claude interacting with Esther and Rapha, Germain himself enters the scene, as the critical eye analyzing the story Claude is telling, explaining to his student where it’s going wrong.

But is Germain instructing Claude on how to write a good story? Or is he trying to pull strings like a puppeteer to see how he can manipulate the real people in Claude’s tale? And really – who is controlling whose strings here?

Through a series of possible endings, Ozon leaves the viewer guessing as to how much is real and how much is Claude’s imagination. By the end, you’re wondering if, in fact, Germain was not his true quarry, rather than Rapha and his family.

Luchini, with his massive eyes and delicious deadpan, is wonderfully imperious as the self-important teacher, caught in a web that he seems to be devising himself. Umhauer has a sly quality that can appear ingenuous, capturing both the devious intelligence of the character and his still-youthful immaturity and lack of foresight. Thomas is appropriately haughty as the gallerist scrambling to keep herself afloat, even as she is pulled into the imagination of one of her husband’s students.

Like the best puzzles, “In the House” doesn’t reveal itself truly until the very end. It’s a mind-tickler of exquisite precision that saves some of its surprises for the finale.

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