The premise of François Ozon’s “In the House” is so suggestive that I kept waiting for the film to become wonderful. That never happens, but at least the premise engages the mind, if not always the eye.
Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a clean-cut 16-year-old student from a working-class family, always sits in the back row of his classroom. He’s not shy exactly. He just wants to be able to scope out the foreground. His teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), recognizes early on that Claude may have a literary gift. A bit fussy and rule-bound, Germain wrote an undistinguished novel years before and sees in Claude the promising writer he once fancied himself to be.
Things become interesting when Claude befriends his middle-class classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). Acting as a math tutor, he wheedles his way into Rapha’s family, paying special attention to his attractive mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). Taking notes, he incorporates his increasingly intimate observations about the family into writing assignments that Germain finds himself hooked on.
The twist here is that Germain begins coaching Claude about the “story line” he’s developing, encouraging the boy to ever more outrageous and dubious acts within the family. But who is really controlling whom here? And is what we are watching actually happening or just a projection of Claude’s – or Germain’s – fantasies?
The French love their metanarrative games, but at least “In the House” is playful. It’s no “Last Year at Marienbad.” Ozon, whose uneven career includes at least one first-rate film, “Under the Sand,” directs with a balmy equipoise. The story may darken, events may lurch into territory that would not seem out of place in a surrealist jape by Luis Buñuel, and yet the stops are never pulled all the way out.
Ozon may have decided that creepiness is best conveyed with a light touch. But too often he just seems to be abdicating the material’s most resonant potential. Buñuel would have brought out its gleaming perversities. The film is child’s play compared with the Spike Jonze-Charlie Kaufman comic masterpiece “Adaptation,” still the best movie ever made about the crazymaking meta-mess of a fiction writer’s life. Ozon is a bit too much like Germain: He’s too straitened by his comfy, middle-class mind-set.
But “In the House” does at least engage us. It even enlists us implicitly as co-conspirators in Claude’s devious storytelling. We may disapprove of his machinations inside that house and his manipulations of both Germain and Germain’s equally hooked wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, speaking perfect French). But we also want his story – real or imagined, or a little of both – to follow every forbidden byway. In effect, what Ozon is saying is that, because we are as enthralled as Germain, we can’t condemn the boy for what he does. A good story trumps good behavior.
If “In the House” were a richer movie, it might have explored these complications instead of just laying them out for us. In a way, Ozon is as much of a tease as Claude. He leads the audience along without ever really giving us what we want. While watching this movie, I kept remaking it in my mind. Maybe that was part of Ozon’s plan. He’s coaxing us into being storytellers, too. Grade: B (Rated R for sexual content and language.)