Stranger Than Fiction

Study in suspense leaves many questions unanswered but ultimately satisfies the psyche

in the house 03 Stranger Than Fiction French auteur and film festival favorite François Ozon, a specialist in psychosexual thrillers such as Swimming Pool and Under the Sand (both starring the alluring Charlotte Rampling), lost his edge and his footing with his last six releases. It’s good to see him return to form with In the House, a suspenseful study of a manipulative teenager who invades the home of a gullible classmate and spirals out of control, corrupting and wreaking havoc on five lives that will never be the same.

At the Lycée Gustave Flaubert, a progressive high school, an exasperated literature teacher and failed novelist named Germain (Fabrice Luchini), fed up with his worst class in years, has grown bored and depressed until he reads a homework assignment turned in by Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a 16-year-old student from a working-class family. The writing is extraordinary—the style with which he reveals the details of an ordinary weekend is so nuanced that the teacher becomes fascinated by the student, encouraging him to explore his thoughts and feelings in more depth. The son of an absentee mother and an unemployed father, Claude is a quiet, low-profile kid who hides in the back of the classroom, saving his guile for the continuing story he writes about watching a middle-class house from a park bench, using a phony pretext to insinuate his way into the life of a classmate named Rapha who lives there and eventually seduce his beautiful mother, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). The teacher is so intrigued that he starts lending his gifted pupil favorite works of literature, offering him extracurricular tutoring to sharpen his powers of observation, and reading each installment with a passion he shares with his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, working again in impeccable French), who owns a struggling avant-garde art gallery.

Their enthusiasm for the way the boy builds a Rear Window narrative grows headier with each chapter of what they feel has the potential to be a great coming-of-age novel. The more access Claude gains to the home he’s always craved—creepily nursing a devious plan to take over Rapha’s identity, sniffing Esther’s perfume, poking around in her closet, rifling through the family medicine chest, breaking into the father’s computer—the more Germain and Jeanne become voyeurs of the private lives of strangers, lapping up the revelations in the stories vicariously like the twists in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Claude writes, they analyze. Soon he’s playing them all, like pawns in a game of chess. In his reawakened zest for talent, Germain becomes so obsessed with his prized pupil that he even resorts to stealing another teacher’s math exam so Claude can make the passing grade that will allow him to continue his writing uninterrupted. Where does Claude get his inspiration? How will it end? Will he murder the men in Rapha’s household and run away with the sexy, vulnerable mother? Will Esther murder her husband and take Claude into her bed? Will young Rapha commit suicide? Will they all move to China? The possibilities are endless. After all, it’s only fiction. Or is it?

Just when everyone (including the audience) thinks they’ve figured it out, Mr. Ozon switches gears. Claude manages to seduce and control everyone, but he too doesn’t know how the story will end, offering at least five possible alternatives as Germain and Jeanne look on as horrified observers.

In the House asks a lot of questions, then frustratingly withholds the answers in a finale that is not entirely satisfactory. Meanwhile, there are humorous intrusions (e.g., an art show at Jeanne’s gallery that includes Nazi symbols constructed from penises), and great performances throughout. Noted French character actor Fabrice Luchini is perfect as the blank-faced fuddy-duddy who comes alive through the writings of the son he never had, turning less bemused when the boy turns his predatory sexual lust from his characters to the professor’s own wife, which brings Kristin Scott Thomas to life in a drab role that grows juicier toward the end. Young Ernst Umhauer has just the right mix of precocious intelligence and duplicitous charm to make Claude an attractive but lethal monstre sacré. The heat turns chilly before it ends, but for the most part, François Ozon is back in the catbird seat with In the House.

rreed@observer.com

IN THE HOUSE

Written by François Ozon and Juan Mayorga

Directed by François Ozon

Starring Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer and Kristin Scott Thomas

Running time: 105 mins.

3/4 Stars