A manipulative student (Ernst Umhauer) hooks his high school lit teacher (Fabrice Luchini) with a series of scandalous stories written for class in Francois Ozon’s “In the House.” More inspired by than adapted from Juan Mayorga’s play “The Boy in the Last Row,” this low-key thriller feels like a return to form for Ozon, whose pics lost their psychosexual edge after the helmer stopped collaborating with Emmanuele Bernheim (“Swimming Pool”). Here, he returns to the intriguing, barely post-pubescent trouble explored in “Criminal Lovers” and “Sitcom,” which no doubt explains how the pic has already managed to land limited U.S. distribution.
Germain (Luchini) has been teaching so long, he’s lost his passion for it. Every year, the students seem to get worse, undermining what little chance the failed novelist has at inspiring a budding talent to achieve what he was never able to do as a writer. Enter Claude (Umhauer), the only student to engage with the semester’s first assignment. But Claude does more than just describe his weekend; he sets up a bourgeois potboiler in which the young student offers to tutor a classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), in order to infiltrate the unsuspecting friend’s middle-class home and possibly seduce his mother (Emmanuelle Seigner).
Claude derisively calls Rapha’s mom “the world’s most bored woman,” though as played by Luchini, fuddy-duddy Germain may as well be the world’s most bored man. Sensing this, Claude indulges his teacher’s ennui enough to take control of the situation. Before long, Germain is lending the boy his favorite novels and offering extended one-on-one advice sessions, desperately waiting for the next installment in the Rapha saga, each of which he eagerly shares with his own frustrated wife, avant-garde gallery owner Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas, flaunting her impeccable French once again).
Ozon alternates between the two spheres — Germain tutoring Claude at school, and Claude using a similarly phony pretext to gain access to the Rapha household — in order to create a kind of virtual “Rear Window” effect: The student supplies the eyes through which his teacher can spy on another’s private life, with Germain eventually being sucked into the reenactments himself. As if inviting the requisite Hitchcock comparisons, composer Philippe Rombi spikes the score’s tempestuous violin flurries with a touch of Bernard Herrmann.
Movies like this typically imagine the conniving teen as clever enough to anticipate the entire game from the beginning, and yet, Ozon’s script manages to stay half a step ahead of auds. That’s possible in part because Claude himself doesn’t know how the story will end, offering at least five possible resolutions, some more believable than others, as the film draws to a close. Further, even with his enigmatic satyr’s smile, newcomer Umhauer looks just guileless enough to be innocent.
Though the teacher-student dynamic appears conventional for much of the film, it’s clear that lessons are flowing both ways. Germain coaches his star pupil on verisimilitude and suspense, while subtly revealing directions in which Claude should take his in-progress story — which may or may not be based in reality. At the same time, Claude demonstrates that there’s a way into every house, suggesting that the job of fiction is to take readers into the private lives of strangers.
The twists ahead are so minor they wouldn’t cut it for an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and yet, Ozon does make one consider the situation at a meta-level, as if demanding auds ask if they are as complicit as Germain in exploiting a clearly unstable minor for the benefit of a good yarn. With the exception of Jeanne’s sexually explicit gallery shows, the costumes, production design and lensing appear deliberately drab, as if crying out for whatever excitement Claude’s writing may bring.