In the House: Bad Teacher, Naughty Pupil

In the House

Opens Fri., May 17 at Seven Gables. Rated R. 105 minutes.

François Ozon’s parents were schoolteachers. That could account for the slyly mixed feelings he shows toward the protagonist of his new film. Meet Germain, a high-school teacher whose commitment to his profession is tested by his boredom, his frustrated dreams of being a writer, and the seductive series of papers turned in by a precocious student.

Not “seductive” in the obvious sense—the movie’s got more on its mind than an inappropriate affair. What Germain (Fabrice Luchini) sees in the serial narrative written by Claude (Ernst Umhauer) is a spark of talent, a reason to invest himself in a student, and a string of cliffhangers that have him—and eventually his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas)—waiting breathlessly for each new installment.

This is an amusing starting point for a movie, but what’s beguiling and ominous about In the House is the way Germain becomes entangled in Claude’s world. In each report, Claude recounts new details of how he’s insinuated himself into a classmate’s upper-middle-class household, but withholds information about what his purpose might be.

Germain does some fatherly tut-tutting about the ethical issues involved, but the “To be continued . . . ” at the end of each paper has him hooked on vicarious adventure—including an unhealthy interest in whether Claude will make headway with his classmate’s foxy mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). Then Germain himself begins appearing in Claude’s narrative, and . . . well, best leave the remainder of the story there. Ozon’s films, Swimming Pool and 8 Women among them, tend to balance the sinister and the silly in gratifying measures, and he’s really on his game here. Germain’s journey is a sort of nightmare comedy in which he fulfills his role as his own worst enemy.

I should confess that Luchini, who has been portraying the quintessential Frenchman for three decades now, is one of my favorite actors. He’s a master at conveying self-satisfaction that cries out to be punctured, but he isn’t a caricature. He parries nicely with Scott Thomas—a gallery manager whose latest show is pretentiously oversexed—and their comfortable, childless marriage can hardly compare with the excitement of Claude’s purple prose, fictional though it may be.

In the House doesn’t entirely fall into place until the final sequence, a superb finish that makes you realize what this whole thing was about all along. (This also pays tribute to an instantly recognizable film classic.) It lives up to Germain’s advice to his student: The ending of the story must take the reader by surprise, but also be inevitable. By that measure, Ozon nails it.

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