The seductions of storytelling drive “In the House,” a cleverly structured comic thriller rich with narrative trickery and macabre humor.
Jaded literature teacher Germain (Jack Lemmon-ish character actor Fabrice Luchini) tells wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott-Thomas) that his new students are the “worst class I’ve had in my life.”
“You say that every year,” she sighs. Then he reads an essay by 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer). The boy’s tantalizing tale of a visit to the “perfect” home of classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) fascinates and excites the instructor and his wife. Subsequent entries hook them like an addictive soap opera.
Claude becomes Germain’s star pupil. Germain gives him private instruction and creepy encouragement to push deeper into the heart of Rapha’s “normal family” life.
Claude begins manipulating Rapha’s insipid family for dramatic effect to make his characters more exciting. What begins as a standard, if well-written, story of a lower-class outsider enamored of a bourgeois family evolves into a spellbinding comic drama about voyeurism.
Writer/director François Ozon’s film poses mischievous questions about the line between observation and invasion of privacy. As the story grows more sensational and lurid, Germain and Jeanne are unclear what is real, exaggerated or fabricated and how much they should allow, or more accurately push, young Claude to continue his endeavor. Is he a callow boy seeking the warm embrace of middle-class comfort, a lovestruck teen smitten with Rapha’s mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) or an agitator scheming to ruin the family and make off with its treasure?
Germain becomes so vicariously involved in Claude’s stories that he enters the narrative and begins interacting with him. Jeanne is woven into the story, as well, with Claude’s writing illuminating their imperfect marriage.
The characters are clearly drawn. Germain and Jeanne are an intellectual couple who have a theory about everything but lead comically unexamined lives. Rapha’s dad is a dull-witted, basketball-obsessed businessman and his mom is a bored stay-at-home who spends all day dreaming of how to redecorate the house.
Claude is all guile masked as candor, playing games with truth and trust, fiction and morality. He’s Ozon’s surrogate, slyly drawing us into the stories, then reminding us we’re mere onlookers. Germain may be a bit of a fool, yet we understand his need to lose himself in Claude’s fictions. After all, don’t we go to the cinema for experiences more exciting than mundane daily life?