Francois Ozon’s previous film, “Potiche,” was a fun and frothy effort, and while it was undeniably beautifully composed and performed, it was arguably also a little inconsequential. Ozon approaches the structurally more ambitious “In the House” from a more devious and darkly comic perspective, yet despite this approach sustaining intrigue for much of the 105 minute running time, there’s still a sneaking suspicion once things are done that once again it doesn’t amount to very much.
Adapted from Juan Mayorga’s play “El chico de la ultima fila,” Ozon’s script is told largely from the perspective of the world-weary teacher and failed novelist Germain (Fabrice Luchini), whose interest is piqued after reading a student’s writing assignment. The student in question is Claude (a superbly self-assured Ernst Umhauer), who has written a mischievous essay about finally making it into the bourgeois home of a classmate that he has long been fascinated by. Germain initially chastises Claude, but intrigued by his compelling prose he sets his pupil the task of delivering weekly follow-up essays.
Everything that follows is subject to interpretation. Are Claude’s visits to his classmate’s house true accounts? Helpfully, his gloriously voyeuristic tales are re-enacted on screen for us to try and figure out, and we’re able to observe how Claude (or the constructed character named Claude) views events while his essays narrate them. The men of the family (the father and son who are both named Rapha) are approached by Claude from an almost anthropological perspective, while he views Emanuelle Seigner’s middle-class mother with a thinly-veiled lust. We’re hooked just as quickly as Germain is, and we’re as confused as he and his wife (a typically poised and assured Kristin Scott Thomas, who listens to Germain read the essays with glee) are when it comes to deciphering whether Claude is orchestrating this narrative or whether he’s simply turning his mundane observations into something increasingly too good to be true. And that’s something to ponder before we even begin to question Germain’s motives in wanting Claude to continue telling his story, and the lengths to which he goes in facilitating his student’s work.
Both Claude’s story and Ozon’s wider narrative are imbued with a constant sense of danger – whether it stems from Claude slowly working his way deeper into this innocent family’s private sanctuary, or Germain’s ethics falling by the wayside. Their relationship too is one that teems with subtext. Is there a hint of homoeroticism, is their relationship more paternal, or is there a mutual but unexpressed desire to simply out the other as a fraud? Ozon seems to relish raising these questions and playing with the audience’s perceptions.
He goes about constructing an enormous psychological jigsaw of a movie, but one that feels like it’s becoming less complete as it progresses. Aspects of Claude’s story are demonstrably accurate accounts, proved true when we see the events from his tale slowly spilling over into Germain’s own life. But Claude is also able to manipulate his story at will, and there’s one almighty tease of a scene in which Claude is finally shown to have fabricated at least one event. Eventually Germain begins to infiltrate the reenactments too, wandering into scenes to tell Claude what he thinks about the latest turn of events and throwing the viewer’s perception of truth and fiction even further into doubt. When Germain bursts out of a cupboard to tell Claude that his story is becoming a farce, there’s a sneaking suspicion that a farce is exactly what Ozon has wanted to construct all along.
If that is the case then it’s a real disappointment. The tension, the suspense, the intrigue…you’re willing it to mean something, to amount to something more. The characters are all so wonderfully constructed and the pace so brilliantly maintained that a similarly brilliant final act seems almost inevitable, yet it fails to materialize. That doesn’t render the film’s numerous strengths up to then pointless, in fact far from it. It’s still a compelling watch from the very first scene to the last. There’s arguably a coming of age story in there, a class satire, an exploration of middle-age inadequacy, and a dissection of the nature storytelling itself. It says more about the film’s strengths than its weaknesses that such a sense of disappointment lingers, yet it lingers nonetheless. [B-]