The name of the school that is so central in Francois Ozon's sharp, enticing In the House says a lot: it's the Lycee Gustave Flaubert, where all sorts of sentimental educations will play out. But this story of 16-year-old Claude, his writing teacher, and a couple of attractive older (to Claude) women is also a psychological cat-and-mouse game filled with Ozon's characteristic twists and stylized touches. If his last film, the comic Potiche, was his most mainstream and showed the least of his personal style, this is distinctly from the lacerating director who can find the creepy, home-invasion side of a sunny family vacation (Swimming Pool) or turn a murder story into a vibrantly-colored musical (8 Women).
Fabrice Luchini is wonderfully mordant as Germain, the sad-sack teacher who is seduced not by Claude's talent - although the kid clearly has some - but by the serial autobiography he submits to Germain: a story of insinuating himself with a classmate named Rapha, stalking and spying on Rapha's so-called "perfect" family until he is part of the household. In Rapha's mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), he finds not only a bored wife, but as he writes, "the scent of a middle-class woman."
Germain and his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, urbane as always) who runs a failing art gallery full of hilariously bad works - one painting shows a Swastika made out of penises - are horrified by Claude's arrogance yet entranced as they read of his adventures. He smoothly turns them into literary voyeurs.
That is just the start of the guessing-game Ozon constructs. As Germain and Jeanne read, we see the action from Claude's point of view, never actually knowing how much of his story is true. Real or not, the personal dynamics swirl into ever more complicated patterns. Claude wants to be accepted into the family, to be mothered by Esther and also to sleep with her. Germain, a failed novelist, lives vicariously through Claude. Rapha wants to be Claude's best friend and maybe his lover. And Claude's devilish, enigmatic smile whenever he turns in another paper makes us wonder, along with the school principal, if he is "black sheep or lost lamb?" Ernst Umhauer demonstrates Claude's malicious side while hinitng at his neediness, an ideal mix.
In the late stages of Claude's story, Germain begins to guide
the plot and even turns up as a physical presence in Rapha's house. He is a literary coach looking over Claude's shoulder and couldn't
possibly be there in reality - a reminder that Claude, like Ozon himself, is
constructing an artificial world.
In the House has far less of that kind of artifice than some of Ozon's deliberately theatrical works, like 8 Women or Angel. Its gleeful dark wit comes from the manipulations, the giving in to voyeurism, the idea that we invade each other's lives and thoughts - and impose our imaginary constructs on them - all the time. We rarely do it as stylishly as Ozon, but then few people do. In the House may be one of his more modest films, but it is beautifully accomplished.
Ozon's latest film, Jeune
et Jolie, will be in competition at Cannes. Meanwhile, take a look at the
trailer for In the House.