A few days after it was announced he'd be making his way to Cannes again for his fourteenth feature film ( "Jeune and Jolie"), François Ozon returns to the American theaters this weekend with his thirteenth.
"In The House," which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, stands alongside the filmmaker's best work. Adapted from Spanish writer Juan Mayorga's play "The Boy in the Last Row," the film follows sixteen year old student Claude (Ernst Umhauer) who charms his French teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) -- not to mention his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) -- with a series of stories about his middle class classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and his family. It's a twisty, clever thriller where much lies beyond the surface.
"I discovered the play because a friend of mine -- an actress -- was in the play in Paris and she called me and told me to come see it," Ozon told Indiewire of the source material. "And I really loved it, but it took me time to know how to adapt it for film because the structure of the play was quite different. It was more abstract... So I had to find some ideas to know how to shoot the film. To know exactly what I needed to do."
Ozon certainly succeeded in his quest. "In The House" is many things, but "abstract" isn't really one of them. In fact, it's quite accessible.
"The play was more intellectual," Ozon explained. "For example, Rafa, the young boy, was fond of philosophy so there was a lot of dialogue about mathematics and philosophy so it was quite difficult to follow. So I cut many things."
One thing Ozon definitely didn't cut out was the focus the play had on the relationship between Claude and Germain.
"That's what struck me in the play -- this relationship between the teacher and the student," he said. "I was very seduced by that. It was a way to speak about my own experience because I had great teachers in my own life, especially when I studied cinema. Someone like Eric Rohmer was very important as a teacher and actually my parents are teachers so I know the world of teachers, I know what it is."
The dynamic between the two characters works in large part because of the performances. Veteran French actor Fabrice Luchini is excellent as Germain, but newcomer Ernst Umhauer holds his own. Ozon didn't know of the striking young actor before casting began, but was clearly happy with his performance.
"The boy in the story is supposed to be 16," Ozon said. "My first choice in casting was meeting boys who were 16 but I realized they were babies, not mature enough to play such a strong part. It's a lead part, I wanted someone with depth to play such a part so I opened the cast and I decided to see all the boys and I met Ernst who is actually 21 but he looks 15 or 16 and he was perfect because he's very close to the character. He has a private life, doesn't live in Paris, he's in a small city, many problems in his own family so he had many connections with the character. He was totally involved, did a lot of work before and he was a good choice for the part."
One actor Ozon was certainly familiar with prior to "In The House"-- but had never worked with before -- was Kristin Scott Thomas, who is captivating as usual as the wife of Luchini's character.
"I needed real chemistry for the husband and his wife," Ozon said. "So I spoke to Kristen because she has a theater background and she has the rhythm in terms of comedy. She can be very quick, very smart very witty and I had in mind the couple of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in the 80's and I needed this kind of complexity. So we worked on that and on the first day of shooting you had a feeling that it was an old couple. So it was perfect. It's a pleasure to work with her because she has many ideas and knows how to work a scene."
"In The House" comes over 15 years Ozon's first feature "Sitcom" was released, and 25 years after his first in a series of very well-received short films hit the festival circuit. When asked about the perspective that's given him and what he -- as a teacher to a student -- might say to aspiring filmmakers, Ozon isn't so sure he's the best person to ask.
"I think when I began the industry it was quite difficult because the technique was quite difficult and we didn't have the digital camera like today," he said. "I don't know what kind of advice I would say, I'm not sure I could be a good teacher, it's sad. Advice for a young director? To be honest, and I think what is most important is to work. You don't have to try to make a masterpiece in your first film and you learn doing films. And thats what I try to do in doing one film a year. And if it's not totally successful it's not a problem, because it's just a film so you have to work and work."
"In The House" is in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this weekend, before expanding through the Spring.