French director François Ozon can usually be counted on for dark irony of the juiciest sort - his 2003 Swimming Pool of sexual provocations comes to mind. But the filmmaker has an especially deft touch when a dash of comedy is mixed in. He uses that to delicious effect in his latest, In the House.
Adapted by Ozon from Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga's The Boy in the Last Row, the literary conceit upon which this House stands required some maneuvering to open up the world of Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). He is the talented and tricky 16-year-old whose imagination drives the film's action, often in very concrete ways.
In the House opens on a new school year. Ozon quickly sets up the general uniformity of life that our protagonist is struggling against with a school board mandate that students wear uniforms.
Within all that sameness, Claude doesn't stand out, either. He's a back-of-the-class sitter, but a keen observer of human behavior. He also has a way with the written word. Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is Claude's cynical but primed to be captivated literature teacher.
Germain's first assignment - write about your weekend - changes everything for student and teacher. Most of the papers are filled with clumsy sentences about trips to the mall, but Claude's opens with a provocative account of his visit to a classmate's house.
Germain's primary orbit is classroom and home, where a settled existence with his wife, Jeanne, has grown mundane. It is also why he is so seduced by what Claude writes.
Claude, who is a tutor to a not-so-bright classmate, Rapha, writes in his first paper of the "particular scent of a middle-aged woman" - Rapha's mother. It is easy to see why the teen has a crush on Esther; actress Emmanuelle Seigner has made her into a moody, elusive beauty.
But no life is perfect, and soon the fractures are exposed as, day after day, Claude observes, writes, and then leaves another chapter with his teacher.
There is a cost for obsession, and the filmmaker gets a little hasty at the end, when everyone is required to pay up. The toll exacted from Germain is exceedingly high. Indeed, the final scene is so open-ended that, like Germain, you won't want the story to end.
In the House *** (out of four stars)
Directed by François Ozon. With Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner. In French with subtitles. Distributed by Cohen Media Group.
Running time: 1 hour, 45 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sexual content, profanity).
Playing at: Ritz Five.