The title might call to mind a Queen Latifah comedy bomb-in-waiting, but In the House is actually the brand spanking new movie from writer-director François Ozon, the Gallic stylist who previously served up Swimming Pool, 8 Women and, most recently, battle-of-the-sexes farce Potiche.
That latter flick, a modest crossover hit for its director, was based on a play, and In the House finds Ozon once again turning to the stage for his source material, as he adapts (and significantly alters) Juan Mayorga’s The Boy in the Last Row. Also in common with Potiche is his choice of leading man; no, not that Mother Russia-lover, Gérard Depardieu, but rather the silver-thatched li’l beaver of French cinema, Fabrice Luchini.
Luchini plays Germain, who (like the same actor’s character in Cédric Klapisch’s Paris) is an aging, disaffected educator – in this instance, a literature teacher at a French high school named in honour of Flaubert. And with the skills of his students, such as they are, leaving the old boy at risk of ripping out what hair of his remains, a ray of hope suddenly shines through the gloom when Germain reads an assignment from a mystery boy named Claude Garcia.
The excitement he feels at Claude’s obvious talent is tingled with unease at the content of the teenager’s submission, offering as it does a revealing insight, an almost prurient intrusion, into the domestic life of one of his classmates.
Germain begins tutoring the boy (played by Ernst Umhauer), helping him hone his ability, and rekindling something of his own creative fire in the process. But as both parties are aware, there’s a less than altruistic side to the arrangement too, as the teacher and his art dealer wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, replacing the originally-cast Juliette Binoche), are clearly hooked on Claude’s write-ups of his excursions into the titular dwelling, each instalment of which closes with a tantalising ‘To be continued…’
The early sequences of In the House are possessed of an undeniable, Almodóvarian intrigue, as we share in Claude’s voyeurism while he ingratiates himself into the home of his classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto); his writings (expressed within the film as voiceover from Umhauer) siring a seductive sense of mystery as we, Germain and Jeanne all simultaneously speculate over the true nature of his motivations.
Is he infatuated with Rapha himself? While the film overall is suffused with a palpable sexuality, a polyamorous potential, it seems scarcely a match made in heaven between the cerebral, feline Claude on the one hand and Dennis the Menace’s idiot brother on the other.
Is he in search of a substitute father? More plausible maybe, but Germain seems a more obvious candidate than the macho moustache man of the house (also named Rapha, and played by Denis Ménochet, the phlegmatic farmer who so memorably faced off against Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds’ sublime opening sequence).
And so, as is often the case with an Ozon movie, the focus very much falls on the older woman, in this instance loving but bored housewife Esther, a domestic Madonna played by the fabulous Emmanuelle Seigner. Not that Seigner deserves singling out amongst the cast. The performances are terrific throughout, most notably from the two leads at opposite ends of the experience-o-meter (er, if such a thing actually existed…).
21 at the time of filming, newcomer Umhauer repays his director’s obvious faith in him with a star-making showing, while Luchini is also excellent. The French answer to Paul Giamatti, he’s blessed with a winning but sparingly-used smile, and saddled with facial architecture seemingly designed solely to reflect the countless disappointments of contemporary existence.
Luchini gets to exercise his comedic chops as Germain begins to invade his pupil’s writings, taking an increasingly active and occasionally indignant role in the story being concocted by the teenage gonzo author. It’s a story which spins off in multiple directions, with this mutable aspect allowing Ozon to give expression to his obvious passion for narrative possibility, and also alighting upon the same artistic ambiguity he previously explored in Swimming Pool.
There’s some broader, typically Gallic satire – of the nouveau riche ‘Raphas’, but also of the self-styled intelligentsia represented by Germain and Jeanne, particularly through the latter’s gallery pieces which include totalitarian sex dolls and penile swastikas. However this is really just window dressing, with the core relationship between Claude and Germain, and their creative sparring, providing the central attraction of this class act.
In the House is released in the UK on 29th March