Film Review: In the House

A gifted high-schooler and his ardent mentor are at the center of this delicious, intriguing and addictive exposé of the creative-writing process and middle-class dysfunction. Wry humor and mystery also bring alive what might be acclaimed filmmake

François Ozon (Under the Sand, Swimming Pool, Potiche) has already proven himself as one of France’s most entertaining and versatile filmmakers. His latest, In the House, might end up being his biggest success with U.S. audiences. Like Swimming Pool, the film is a consideration of the writer’s process and the relation of fiction to reality, but it goes deeper, richer, darker. And it’s great fun.

Ozon’s narrative, loosely adapted and considerably embellished from Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy in the Last Row, billows forward on waves of dramatic teases and twists, along with insights into the contrivances of fiction and the challenges for its creator. Ballast for all this comes by way of protagonists Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a 16-year-old high-school student who is a gifted and compulsively driven writer, and his mentor, literature teacher Germain (the always wonderful Fabrice Luchini). Germain is gripped, even obsessed, by Claude’s growing literary accounts of a seemingly ordinary bourgeois family he sees regularly. The family is warm, superficial and boring. What could lie beneath, wonder Claude the scribe and Germain, a failed novelist who knows a good story when it sneaks up.

Claude’s entrée into the family is through tutoring fellow student Rapha Jr. (Bastien Ughetto), an average kid who needs help with math. Rapha’s father is sports-loving every-guy businessman Rapha Sr. (Denis Ménochet), who is preoccupied with the Chinese and intent on getting on their good side for business reasons. The family’s mater familias is Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), a dutiful woman out of the ’50s who is happy with her role of mother/housewife but dreams of becoming an interior designer.

As Claude grows closer to the family, infiltrates their house, and fills notebooks with their story, Germain has by his side wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), the distressed manager of an avant-garde art gallery whose wealthy backer twins (Yolande Moreau in both roles) threaten to pull the plug. Jeanne shares her husband’s passion for the story Claude is unfolding.

Things get complicated as Claude grows closer to the family and is welcomed into their home and lives. There’s no peace on the Germain front, as he too gets more involved with Claude’s tale and maybe even the family itself. Claude’s pursuit of his story and Germain’s obsession with it become a kind of dangerous literary quicksand. Jeanne too confronts deep stress as her gallery approaches an opening and the presence of her backers is questionable.

In the House is loaded with surprises and questions. For instance, what story elements keep readers’ (or viewers’) attention? What makes them laugh or feel scared or want more? (Indeed, might Claude be up to no good?) When might a tragic turn of events go too far or maybe not far enough? When does reality interfere? How about voyeurism in pursuit of a story?

And when are elements gratuitous, including, in the film itself, that strand that has the wealthy twins considering pulling their gallery funding or that jolting gay curve from left field that has one character gravitating thusly? The film plays with these questions and other notions, including some jabs at class differences, just as it challenges us to decide how far on the fiction spectrum reality is acceptable.

In the House is also well-served by its magnificent key performances. Again, Luchini is blazing and would make this film, even if it didn’t have so much else to offer, the very reason for the detour. Umhauer’s occasional voiceover as Claude helps illuminate the crazy narrative path. Amazingly, he and Ughetto, although both 21 when the film shot, are convincing high-schoolers. Even Seigner, best known for her roles as female provocateurs, is perfect as the relatively demure hausfrau. And Scott Thomas again is serenely elegant and assured as a supportive wife.