Voyeurism class is in session throughout “In the House,” the latest from French provocateur François Ozon (“Swimming Pool”). Not that it’s necessarily clear who’s doing the schooling and who’s being schooled in this slyly warped student-and-teacher yarn.
Fabrice Luchini (Ozon’s “Potiche”) plays Germain, a persnickety high school writing instructor whose burnout might escape his principal’s notice but not ours. “Reactionary philosophers predict a barbarian invasion,” he harrumphs to his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas, showing off her French again). “They’re already among us, in our classrooms!” His tedium is broken only by essays from a new student, Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a smirkingly enigmatic kid fixated on an unremarkable classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), and the boy’s parents (Emmanuelle Seigner, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” and Denis Ménochet, “Inglourious Basterds”).
Claude articulately reports on systematically wheedling his way into their perfect home, perfect family, perfect life, a world he seems to both covet and despise. For other teachers, this would all be one giant red flag. For Germain, it’s a cue to urge his pupil on, to push him to try even riskier “plot developments,” and maybe get him to strive for a tiny hint of Flaubert’s stylistic perfectionism or Dostoevsky’s rich characterization. Germain tells his wife and himself that his interest is purely academic. So why does he rush to read new notebook pages as if they were the sort of Barbara Cartland soft-core tripe he can’t abide?
The various scenes with Claude narrating his creepy infiltration take on an increasingly surreal air, to the point that Germain pops up in a couple of them to offer editing tips. Ozon’s mischievousness is also on display, literally, in incidental scenes in the art gallery that Scott Thomas’s character manages, a sacre-bleu collection of Hitler-faced blowup dolls and worse. No mistaking the great, dark absurdity here. But what to make of other bits, such as Germain rationalizing Claude’s writing to his wife by shrugging, oh, adolescent fantasizing is normal? Or what about some of the wildly inappropriate steps Germain takes to ensure that Claude keeps at it? More satire?
If so, it doesn’t really play. We also wonder if there’s some ironic statement in Germain’s own, ostensibly elliptical final chapter, whose lessons couldn’t be more mundane. After all the mesmerizingly illicit buildup, the film’s willful lack of a payoff is almost as strange as one of those essays.Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.