Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas in "In the House"
Fabrice Luchini and Kristin Scott Thomas in "In the House"

Francois Ozon's psychological mystery “In the House,” which is adapted from the play by Juan Mayorga, works as an interesting companion piece to Ozon’s 2003 film “Swimming Pool.” Both center on a middle-aged literary curmudgeon who develops a fantastic fixation on a young, enticing and distinctly threatening protégée, while blurring the lines between reality and lurid imagination. What events actually happen, and what events get cooked up along the way by a smart, jaded mind all too willing to introduce a little excitement to the story?

In “Swimming Pool,” the better of the two films, Charlotte Rampling seemingly invents a lethal babe (Ludivine Sagnier) with whom to spend her summer holiday in the French countryside. The strength of that film is that what happens “in the house” -- a rustic mini-chateau drenched in sunlight -- is absorbingly suspenseful, and occupied by characters both sumptuously extraordinary yet intriguingly real (whether they’re in fact real or not).

Meanwhile, “In the House” suffers because what takes place inside the title maison is a thin, satirical cardboard cut-out of a real drama.

In the House
High school lit professor Germain (Fabrice Luchini), an owl-eyed, unsmiling grump, receives an alarmingly biting if well-written student essay near the beginning of the semester. The writer is Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), an angelic-looking imp from the other side of the tracks who has made an after-school habit of going home with his bourgeois friend Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and observing how the other half lives. In the essay, Claude details with cynicism Rapha’s large house, his bored mother (Emmanuelle Seigner), who “has the distinct smell of a middle-class woman,” and his basketball-loving father, who deals in cheap Chinese labor.

This first writing assignment, ending abruptly with “To Be Continued,” turns into another essay and then another, which Claude hands over to the perplexed Germain, who is both taken aback by Claude’s hurtful observations and enticed by the prospect of a student who can actually write. As is Germain’s wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who willingly digs into Claude’s essays with her husband while maintaining a circumspect distance from them. Perhaps because Germain feels defeated by his own lackluster writing career, he forms an obsession with Claude that is at once vicarious, paternal, instructional and vaguely sexual.