Francois Ozon’s In the House tells the story of Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a French literature secondary school teacher dulled by the lack of inspiration coming from a sea of disinterested students who are unconcerned with reading and writing in the modern world. That is until he comes across a provocative story written by his pupil Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer) detailing his strong desire to infiltrate the house of one of his classmates, and potentially become a sort of surrogate family member. The assignment ends with a simple, cryptic “to be continued.” Intrigued by Claude’s unpolished but promising writing, Germain takes him under his wing, encouraging him to continue to write his stories, which Claude insists are based on true events.
The hook for In the House comes in the form of how Ozon chooses to shoot the narration of Claude’s stories. As they are read aloud by Germain or his wife (a measured Kristin Scott Thomas), we see what happens on the page acted out, as Claude slowly (and with an insidious undertone) infiltrates the house of the Raphas (the first name of both father and son), and begins to develop a fixation on the mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner) that soon borders on unhealthy obsession. What makes things interesting is how Claude, and then by extension the film, begins to twist and grow under the tutelage of Germain. It does not take long for Claude to begin to incorporate the notes of criticisms of his work into the stories, which thus transitions into actual filmed scenes, but what isn’t entirely clear is whether he is taking these notes and criticisms with him as he continues to insinuate his way into the real lives of the Rapha family. Indeed, once he starts changing the stories and embellishing, you begin to lose track on what is real or imagined, actual events or fantasy, wish fulfillment or the work of a boy trying to please his teacher.
Following in the grand tradition of films like Adaptation and 8 ½, Ozon plays with our expectations while simultaneously demonstrating the power of the written word to obfuscate what we expect to see or assume we are seeing up on the screen. In many ways, In the House is lovingly vague in its construction, to the point that once it ends you can’t even be sure how much of it actually happened. There is such a sharp distinction between Germain’s world and the lives of the Raphas (even though they are so purposefully intermixed via the intermediary Claude), that by the time the credits roll, you realize that it’s entirely possible almost nothing from Claude’s stories was true, which paints some of Germain’s actions in a completely different light.
I expect to revisit this one. It’s a brain teaser that sneaks up on you and quietly envelops you before you even realize what it’s doing. Buoyed by strong performances from Umhauer, whose voyeuristic tendencies bounce from wanting to jealous, from loving to malicious, and Luchini, the failed writer turned teacher simply looking to find some vicarious thrills out of cultivating a young talent before he finds himself in over his head, Ozon has assembled a marvelous little thriller that will make you reconsider the strength of the written word.