French filmmaker François Ozon has triumphed in a variety of genres, from psychosexual drama (“Water Drops on Burning Rocks”) to workplace satire (“Potiche”) to murder-mystery musical (“8 Women”), but his biggest hit to date in the United States was “Swimming Pool,” which starred Charlotte Rampling as a blocked novelist vacationing in a French villa.
Does she observe the sexual and homicidal misbehavior of her publisher’s daughter … or is what we see all in her head, the makings of her next book?
Ozon takes another glimpse inside the mind of a writer in “In the House,” in which both a young scribe and his mentor cross the line in pursuit of the story they want to tell.
Darkly funny and utterly compelling, it’s arguably the best teacher-student movie since 1999’s “Election.”
Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is an unsuccessful novelist who has long since abandoned his craft in favor of teaching literature, surrounding himself with the books of those who triumphed where he failed.
His wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, who’s making more movies in French than in English of late) struggles to keep operating a local art gallery after the death of its owner, but Germain’s attentions are distracted by his work – or rather, by one student in particular.
Claude (Ernst Umhauer) has immediately set himself apart among Germain’s students, both for his facility with storytelling and because of his methods – he’s tutoring the lunkheaded Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) in math and pretending to befriend him, but it’s all a ruse to get inside Rapha’s seemingly perfect bourgeois household.
Claude lives alone with his infirm father, and he covets Rapha’s apparently ideal house, complete with mère (Emmanuelle Seigner as Esther) and père (Denis Ménochet as Rapha Senior).
Germain’s schoolteacher side objects to Claude’s manipulations, and to his sharing of Rapha’s personal quirks on paper, but his frustrated novelist side finds himself captivated by the story (even Jeanne is eager to hear each new chapter) and impressed with Claude’s skills. As Claude grows closer to the family, even nursing a crush on Esther, Germain violates his own personal and professional ethics to enable his student.
Making movies about writers can be exceedingly difficult – as Roger Ebert once pointed out, you’re often stuck with scenes of actors clacking away at a typewriter or rushing into a crowded saloon clutching a manuscript. But Ozon (adapting the play by Juan Mayorga) puts us into the head of both author and editor, leading to some hilarious moments where we see Claude interacting with Rapha’s family, as Germain wanders into the scene to correct his prose.
Whether the film’s climax is overly rough on Germain will be up to viewers to debate, but Ozon’s ending fits the prescription that Germain teaches Claude: “The reader must never see it coming, yet he must believe that this is the only way things could have worked out.”
As usual, Ozon offers up a bounty of terrific performances, from Luchini’s self-important blowhard to Umhauer’s troubled genius to Seigner’s frustrated but loving wife and mother. Scott Thomas puts her lugubrious deadpan to good use, and even Ughetto and Ménochet give the loutish Raphas an undercurrent of humanity.
Artists are so often willing to let other artists off the hook, but here, Ozon sagely and humanely suggests that there are lines not to be crossed, even when we’re dying to know how the story’s going to turn out.