With his new film, French director François Ozon brings a more lighthearted sense of humor to the thrillers that he built his career on. In the House examines the role imagination plays in the disruption of marital stagnation not too unlike what Stanley Kubrick did with Eyes Wide Shut. It also celebrates storytelling in vivid form, playing comfortably with the edges of cinematic techniques. It only falters toward the end, when it falls a few too many plot twists that undermine the craftiness of much of the film.
After bored literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) complains to his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) that his fresh class of students is the “worst class ever” as he grades their introductory papers, his wife tells him “You say that every year.” But then he stumbles across a paper that will shatter their reality. He starts to read aloud seeming to assume another banal paper. Luchini, a veteran actor who had his start with Eric Rohmer, infuses his teacher with a bitterness who still has an undying passion for crafty storytelling. When he ends his recitation of this essay with “to be continued” he turns ennui to bewilderment. “He needs a shrink,” notes Jeanne of the student. But, underneath his pride, Germain has been seduced.
Indeed, Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer) will turn out to be trouble. He has turned in a rather voyeuristic piece of narrative about finally finding his way into the home of “the perfect family.” His entry comes by way of offering math lessons to the home’s occupant, his classmate Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), a cross-eyed looking chump. Claude describes the home with the zeal of a stalker. Germain seems hooked by the first “to be continued,” and so Ozon will unfurl a twisted tale illustrating how real the consequences of imagination has on life.
Claude always seems to have Mephistophelean smirk, implying a danger brewing below the surface, but Germain, so stuck up and conservative, constantly espousing the merits of “the genius” Flaubert, falls for this other world like a sucker. Inside the home, Claude never seems to stop staring at the woman of the house, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). His mouth half open and his eyelids sleepy, he seems lost in her visage. Claude describes Rapha’s mother as “the world’s most bored woman.” But he also seems very aware of the sexual being below the exterior. Meanwhile, he writes off Rapha Sr. (Denis Ménochet) as a man more concerned with basketball than his career, much less giving his wife any attention.
Claude notes Esther’s obsession for improving the home while including a reference to her “middle class curves” when the sun shines through her dress as she measures a window. Germain nitpicks at Claude’s writing, tweaking the text as far as his choice of language and characterization, but when he suggests deviations in the plot, Claude always seems to win, offering one shocking scenario after another that always seems to intrigue the teacher. The boy’s sly, crafty look, as he talks about how everything must happen in the house, including the possible seduction of Esther, enhances his power over these scenarios that subvert any critiques by Germain, who Claude sometimes calls “Maestro,” much to the teacher’s chagrin. As much as this middle-aged man wants to be a conservative intellectual, however, he also harbors a restless desire for adventure. He takes Claude under his wing to mentor him after class and they work on his essays together, tempering the fantasy with his decades of angst and the boy’s pubescent desires. All the while, the audience wonders: how real are these stories?
The film is a witty adventure of possible scenarios that grow slightly more dangerous with each of Claude’s essays. Ozon creates a strange sort of suspense that works best when he leaves it up to the audience to judge or doubt whether the experiences are real or made up for the sake of Claude’s story. Germain seems to waver, as well, convincing himself this is only a student creatively exploring his talent for writing while secretly hoping it might be real. Ozon is aware of not only using pace and editing for the sake of this illusion but also a wry sense of mise-en-scène. When Germain and Claude meet to talk about the writing, Claude stands against the solid blue of the classroom wall, as if it’s the blue screen for the boy’s projections.
If it were not for an obsession with plot twists that take the film out of the house and start involving he teacher, this film would have enchanted to the end. Instead, In the House starts losing its momentum during the third act and ends with an unsatisfying, contrived finale with three or four too many new developments. It unfortunately turns a rather witty feeling film into a tedious affair that disengages the viewer instead of seducing them further into this tailspin of teacher/student relations.
In the House is rated R, has a runtime of 105 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. It opens today, May 10, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema for its South Florida premiere run (the theater’ s publicist provided a DVD preview screener for the purpose of this review). It then appears at the Tower Theater beginning May 24. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.