Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is a high school literature teacher frustrated by his students’ lack of enthusiasm (when he asks them to write an essay about what they did over the weekend, he gets lots of two-sentence responses about watching TV and eating pizza). His wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), who curates a struggling art gallery, listens dutifully to her husband’s laments as he grades a stack of homework assignments.
But one essay stands out from the rest: Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a quiet boy with a smirk for a smile, writes about visiting the home of his schoolmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) to help the boy with his homework. But Claude ends up spying on Rapha’s parents (Emanuelle Seigner and Denis Menochet), especially his mother, whom he describes as a “middle-class woman with middle-class curves.”
Although it’s vaguely troubling, Claude’s essay catches his teacher’s attention. Germain takes an interest in his student, who is clearly a gifted writer but just needs instruction in plot, conflict and narrative construction. He gives the teen several books to read for inspiration, and he asks him to keep the essays coming, which Claude does, turning in mini-chapters of what could conceivably become a novel.
With each new installment, Claude continues to further insinuate himself into Rapha’s family, to the point that Germain and Jeanne begin to worry. “He could be dangerous,” she warns her husband. But the teacher’s curiosity to learn what happens next overrides his cautionary instincts, and he encourages Claude to keep writing — eventually, inevitably, becoming a character in the unfolding yarn.
Director François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women, Potiche) tries to have it both ways with In the House: He wants to make a compelling Hitchcockian thriller while simultaneously deconstructing the genre, showing us alternate versions of Claude’s stories that suggest the different directions the movie could have taken. Soon, you learn not to always trust what you’re seeing, and you also begin to wonder who is manipulating whom.
In the House is thoroughly engrossing most of the time, the suspense mounting as the relationship between Germain and Claude intensifies. Is the boy a psychopath? Is Germain, a frustrated author, living vicariously through his student? And what effect do Claude’s growing intrusions have on Rapha’s family? Peppered with psychosexual undertones and subtle performances (Thomas is terrific as the teacher’s increasingly alarmed wife), In the House seems to be building toward a cathartic and unexpected finale. Instead, you get a baffling fizzle — an inexcusably limp and unimaginative conclusion that doesn’t bring a single plot strand to a satisfying end. Getting there is undeniably fun, though: Savor In the House for its meta-exploration of adolescence, class resentment and suppressed desire, but don’t expect much more.
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner, Ernst Umhauer, Denis Menochet, Bastien Ughetto.
Writer-director: François Ozon. Inspired by the play “The Boy in the Last Row” by Juan Mayorga.
Producers: Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer, Claude Ossard.
A Cohen Media Group release. Running time: 113 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, brief nudity, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Shadowood, Lake Worth.