In the House, from the eclectic French filmmaker François Ozon (Under the Sand, 8 Women), is an almost perverse delight, an egghead thriller that slyly shell-games its truer purpose as an inquiry into the construction – and deconstruction – of fiction. Scratch deconstruction: Make that tear-the-house-down demolition.
Middle-aged Germain (Luchini) is a failed novelist teaching Flaubert to bored, barely literate teenagers – “barbarians,” as he dismisses them to his sympathetic but distracted wife, Jeanne (Scott Thomas), who has her own troubles trying to keep her underperforming art gallery afloat. One day a soft-spoken, lower-income student named Claude (Umhauer) submits an essay that stands Germain’s hair on end, in which Claude describes how he has observed from afar a fellow classmate’s happy home life – upper-crust neighborhood, nuclear family – and set about infiltrating it: “At 11am I rang the bell, and the house finally opened to me.”
Claude continues to turn in essays (or are they wild fictions?) about his maneuverings into the family – as a surrogate son, a much-needed best friend, a forbidden fruit. Ignoring his inner warning bells, Germain takes Claude under his wing, finding renewed purpose in molding the promising young writer. He tells himself he’s just nurturing a new talent; in truth, he visibly hungers for the stories, the sultan to Claude’s Scheherazade.
One Thousand and One Nights isn’t the only allusion to prick the ears. A marquee advertising Woody Allen’s Match Point – about a social upstart worming his way into a family – glances by in the background, and there’s also the name of Jeanne’s gallery – The Minotaur’s Maze – that could send a movie conspiracy theorist scampering down a dark corridor in pursuit of a connection to the father-son dynamic that blossoms between teacher and student. Or is there something instructive there about caution vs. flying too close to the sun?
Ozon’s house of cards is rife with such twisting corridors, and not all of them arrive at an easy-to-glean destination. (I never unpuzzled the film’s fixation with China.) Some viewers have noted the script’s emphasis on twins, but more telling, I think, is its study in opposites. Ozon underlines the school’s new uniform policy, meant to effect “equality” among students, but this is a struggle between haves (have family, have money, have natural talent) and have-nots. Perhaps the most significant “have” in this pleasurably heady film is who has control of the story. Sympathies shift, the reliability of narrators is called into question, but, in the end there’s only one person perfectly in charge here, and that’s Ozon.