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In The House

As subject matter, the origins and development of the young literary artist have little traction in the movies, probably for good reason. That hasn’t daunted Francois Ozon (Potiche). In In the House he goes at it with an impish skepticism and a satirist’s wicked use of inconsistency, purblind social conventions and obsessive impulses. And he wrings a lot of fun, sometimes with an unsettling point of view, out of his enjoyably bent examination of the creation of one very young writer and his tutor.

This second figure is Germaine (Fabrice Luchini), a dangerously jaded and cynical high school writing and literature instructor in a provincial French city. At home with Jeanne, his art gallery director wife (Kristen Scott Thomas) after the September opening of school, he rails against “the worst class” ever. Sarcastically reading aloud excerpts, he is brought up short by the report of Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who has written about a visit to the home of his classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), ostensibly to help him with his math homework. But, Claude admits, this friendly gesture is really a means to gain admission to Rapha’s home, and acquaintance with this “normal” family, whom he’s spied on and dreamt of.

We get a cursory briefing on Claude’s unfortunate background to suggest the reason for his fascination with Rapha’s home life, a background Claude isn’t loathe to exploit. Germain and Jeanne are uncomfortably struck by one sentence about Rapha’s mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) and their home’s “singular scent of a middle-class woman.” At first admonishing the boy for his voyeuristic exploitation, Germain is soon in thrall to his student’s essays on Rapha et famille, which always end with “To be continued,” one of Ozon’s arch little devices, and coaching him in technique and writing strategies. He goes further, critiquing the youngster’s “plot turns,” as Claude becomes something of a fixture in this household.

Another of Ozon’s unsettling tactics involves Claude’s mindset, motives and compositional veracity. Under Germain’s prodding tutelage, he claims not to understand the uses of “realism” and “parody” or their practical differences. This may be truthful, but it’s less certain that he’s the innocent in this very odd enterprise.

Luchini’s Germain is absorbingly near to perfect as the acerbic burnt-out case who’s revivified by his student’s “stories,” with unsurprisingly nasty consequences. Umhauer’s mildly delicate features, just shy of pretty, surround a gaze that can suggest happy curiosity, or wry comprehension.

Ozon applies his own droll attention to pedagogy, the uses of literature, and middle-class life. Almost inevitably, he hasn’t orchestrated his complexities with complete success, but at the end, there’s also a kind of semi-redemptive charity. Ozon mocks it, but he too believes in art’s powers.

Watch the trailer for In The House

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