There are only seven basic stories, or at least that's what TV Tropes says, and high school lit teacher Germain (at Lycee Gustave Flaubert, no less) is certain he knows them all backwards and forwards. As portrayed by Fabrice Luchini in Francois Ozon's “In The House,” Germain may appear, at first, as a caricature. His Woody Allen-esque glasses and fine guage sweaters exude a put-upon bookworm, forced by circumstance to hang up his own creative dreams and waste his hours trying to bang some sense into the dull youth of today.
“In The House” opens, after Germain is spied rolling his eyes at a faculty meeting, with him bemoaning the lack of creativity from his creative writing class. Echoing Max Von Sydow's soliloquy at the television from “Hannah and His Sisters,” Germain trudges through his papers until he finds one that is sharp and witty, with elegant phrases and a unique point of view.
It is the first section in an ongoing story written by Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a handsome, blonde, slightly devilish kid who sits in the back watching everything. (Dane DeHaan for the Hollywood remake, to be sure.) After reading the piece aloud to his wife (Francophone Kristin Scott Thomas) Germain's first instinct to force the story to stop. This degree of nonconformity is dangerous, and besides, what if the other student should find out about it?
The other student is Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), a student with poor math skills on the receiving end of Claude's tutorials. These lessons, however, are just an excuse for Claude to get a firsthand look at the interior of a typical, middle class home.
Rapha's family's house is situated on the perimeter of a park, and has therefore been a longtime object of speculation for the dangerously curious Claude. Once “in the house,” Claude's impressions of Rapha's father as a frustrated middle-manager and sports-happy Sinophile and Rapha's mother as “the most bored woman in the world” become the focus of his serialized tale.
In time, Germain becomes obsessed with the story, demanding changes be made. This starts out as professorial guidance, making suggestions about tone and voice (all cleverly visualized in replayed dramatizations) but soon he is appearing as an actual character in the tale with a full-throated interest in its outcome.
With its wheels-within-wheels structure and ubiquitous jibber-jabber between neophyte and guide “In the House” is something of a lit major's “Inception.” Ozon's screenplay (based on a play by Juan Mayorga) makes great use of ambiguity not only in what is “really” happening, but whether what we are seeing is the actual fictional story as written or a potential version of the written story.
If this sounds all heady and meta, that's because it is (it's about a lit prof for heaven's sake!) but it is also very droll and even just a little bit sinister. A wonderful B-story concerns Kristen Scott Thomas' declining career as a gallerist, and there are some cleverly nuanced japes at the modern art scene – a subject that's usually offered up for blunt ridicule.
As is normally the case when one gets “in too deep” there are are some scandalous turns, and “In The House” is no different. Our underage boy and bored housewife (played by a very dressed-down Emmanuelle Seigner, I should add) do, eventually, strike up a physical relationship – or at least they do in one of the layers of the story. Whether or not it actually happens is something only the two of them will know for sure.
“In the House” is crafty and juicy and ought to delight anyone whose ever thumped their chest about being a storyteller. I must confess, however, that somewhere in the third act the air started to leak from the balloon. The tongue-clucking from all the adults feels out of sync with the agreeable tone of the rest of the picture. Yes, Claude and Germain engage in hubris, but the bulk of the movie is basically cheering them on.
By the time we get to the end of the picture, after some discussion on how a perfect ending must somehow be both unexpected and inevitable, “In the House,” in my opinion, chokes. It gets over-dramatic, even a tad preposterous, though not so much as to ruin the whole film. I mean, bookish Germain getting knocked unconscious by a hardcover Celine is hard to fully snub. Considering the truly lame nature of Ozon's last picture (“Potiche”) this is, despite the humor, more in line with the director's quite good thriller “Swimming Pool.”
SCORE: 7.8 /10