English teachers around the country will have their hearts burst with joy when they see In the House, François Ozon’s latest wry thriller. Through smart characters and an emphasis on literature, Ozon goes high-concept but never loses grasp of an emotional core. Small moments are suspenseful because it’s impossible to tell how or when the characters will have the proverbial rug pulled from under them, and Ozon’s restraint with the material is remarkable. Even when the fourth wall gets broken, In the House works because it has the confidence to go for the laugh, and not anything deeper.
The premise is markedly French, which should be an early indication whether you need to read further. Fabrice Luchini stars as Germain, a failed writer who now works as a high school literature teacher. He’s an intellectual and a snob, the sort of man who shares the atrocious writing of his students with his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). It’s the start of the school year, and Germain is more pessimistic about his class than usual. Then he reads a short story by Claude (Ernst Umhauer), and it’s surprisingly good. It’s about how Claude ingratiates himself with Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and his family. He pays special attention to Rapha’s mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner): when he uses the phrase “the singular scent of a middle class woman,” it’s a red flag for Germain and Jeanne.
Maybe because he’s bored or maybe because he’s curious, Germain meets with Claude and helps him with his writing. The short story becomes a novella, and Ozon depicts Claude’s words through flashback and voiceover. It’s never entirely clear whether what we see is what literally happens: in a terrific scene, Claude mocks Rapha’s father (Inglourious Basterd’s Denis Ménochet), only to rewrite it so he’s more sympathetic. Ozon never comments on the morality of the game between Claude and Germain. Instead, he shows two smart, impulsive people who know it’s more delicious to let things play out than stop. When Germain resorts to unethical behavior to massage the relationship between Claude and Rapha, a lesser film would make his transgression the lynchpin of the plot. Ozon would rather have a perfunctory argument between Germain and Jeanne about it, and then move forward. Right and wrong are immaterial when Claude’s story grows more complex.
There is an intriguing sub-plot about Jeanne’s professional life, and it runs parallel to Germain’s. She runs an art gallery, and she struggles to find stuff that will sell. At first she goes with pure shock: we see swastikas made out of genitalia and dictators repurposed as sex dolls. Eventually she settles on bland cloudscapes, which is antithetical to Claude’s development as a writer. Ozon makes a sneaky point about art and where it comes from: an ordinary middle class kid can produce something more thought-provoking than an artist with a top-notch pedigree. Jeanne understands this all too well, which partially explains her interest in Claude. It’s kind of inevitable that she meets hims, and this inevitably weighs on their conversation. They speak with resignation, going through the motions of what they know must happen, and the actors are good enough so their meeting is funny, not boring.
It’s hard to imagine any other actor fitting into the major roles. Handsome and manipulative, Umhauer’s Claude is not exactly a sociopath. He’s more like a rebel who’d prefers the pen over a can of spray paint. Rapha and his family look resolutely boring – there’s simply nothing extraordinary about them until Claude enters their lives – and the actors have the courage to serve Ozon’s vision. Thomas and Luchini are the important performances, and Ozon investigates their relationship more than any others. It’s hard to imagine such a marriage in the United States: they’re loveless, basically, so the only things they share are loose morals and intellectual curiosity. Thomas is in more French movies than English-speaking ones, and she’s settled into the role of a prickly, distant middle-aged woman with ease. Luchini has a unique presence – he’s doughy-looking yet his mind is always sharp – and here he’s allowed to show his more confident side (in movies like The Girl from Monaco, he’s typically more reserved). Ozon gives Luchini the unlikely combination of pride and humility: when Claude taunts Germain in one of his stories, Jeanne protests until Germain remarks, “Well, he’s right.”
The similarities between In the House and The Great Gatsby are startling. Both feature an older character who implores a young man to write about his ideal person. Things go well for a while, until the intervention of the young men completely destroys the thing they were writing. In the House even ends on a shot of a green light (granted, the lights are in more than one color). Ozon invests in his characters so that every plot point, no matter how surprising, is in step with what these particular people would do. The act of writing is essential to both films, but unlike Luhrmann, you get the sense reading is important to Ozon, too.