French writer-director François Ozon invades the sanctity of the home with frisky, acerbic stories that lay bare the fragile nature of domestic tranquility. His early narrative film See the Sea (97) sets a sociopathic backpacker loose in the house of a young mother. Under the Sand (00) offers a glimpse of a woman unable to cope with loss, her life stalled by a ghost that haunts her mind, and her apartment. In Swimming Pool (03), the sedate charm of a vacation cottage is rocked by the arrival of a nubile blond oozing vivacious promiscuity. With his latest film, In the House, adapted from the play The Boy in the Last Row by Juan Mayorga, Ozon identifies the intruders as outsiders, artists even: Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a malcontented teen with literary ambition to burn, and his mentor, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a sardonic middle-aged high school lit teacher.
It’s the dawn of a new school term, but the cynical, snooty Germain cannot muster the slightest enthusiasm for the year ahead, despairing over the inane, barely literate writing of his students to his cultured wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). But when Germain reads a provocative essay brimming with originality, his posture of contempt cracks. Written by Claude, it details how the quiet teen finagled his way into the home of his dopey classmate Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto). The essay then takes aim at this normal family, dismissing Rapha Artole Senior (Denis Ménochet) as a vulgar galoot, and objectifying Rapha’s comely yet passive mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), who exudes “the singular scent of a middle-class woman.” The childless Germain decides to train Claude in the art of writing, and the eager pupil’s imagination blooms as he insinuates himself deeper into the simple yet loving Artole family. Inspired after all these years, Germain eagerly anticipates each new installment of his young protégé’s story, which the film presents in flashback form with a wistful, crisp voiceover by Umhauer. As the stakes of the game escalate, teacher and student remain blind to the growing risks.
Ozon films are often pushed ahead by their dialogue, and with In the House he offers up some of his sharpest tête-à-têtes. Jeanne and Germain’s casual banter recalls the brainy urbanity of Annie Hall—one of many nods to Woody Allen—and conveys all we need know about their relationship: “Worst class I’ve had in my life,” Germain grumbles while looking over student papers. “You say that every year,” Jeanne responds without a trace of sympathy. Despite the couple's air of intellectual superiority, both are tainted by hypocrisy: Jeanne is proud to exhibit deviant art (naked life-size dolls with female anatomy and the heads of Mao, Stalin, and Hitler, paired with a swastika of kinked phalluses, in a show on “the dictatorship of sex”), but objects to Claude’s aesthetic explorations along the boundaries of social propriety; Germain, meanwhile, scorns the people around him while he insists that Claude respect the characters in his stories.
As 16-year-old Claude, Umhauer incarnates a boy of cool reserve, fiery resolve, and a dash of menace. Miserable, he wants to infiltrate the Artole home and enter its warm embrace, but once there, his urge is to destroy the family and escape with its treasure. With a boyish grin that curls easily into a smirk, Umhauer gives off the vibe that wily plots are brewing within. At other times, he’s just a gangly teenager, as when he awkwardly kisses a romantic interest.
François Ozon is a reliably mischievous director, and he’s up to many of his old tricks in his latest feature. But he also puts a new spin on things, allowing the nuclear family to emerge intact and mostly unscathed while turning the knives on those, like himself, who deal in imagination and the dangers of storytelling. In the House satirizes the process of aesthetic creation and the damage it can inflict on the artist and those around him. Still, Ozon’s sympathy remains with these outcasts, as he affirms the mystique that fiction imparts on the quotidian. He may feign sympathy for the middle-class family, but one senses that underneath it all, like Claude and Germain, Ozon still struggles to transcend his contempt for normality.