Germain did not become a teacher to coddle teenagers’ self-esteem. He wanted to teach great French literature. That probably sounds nobler than it is in practice. In fact, the after-school tutoring he offers a talented pupil lead to unlikely scandal in François Ozon’s In the House (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
Germain begins the new academic year with his usual pessimism, but Claude Garcia’s first composition catches him off guard. It displays a voyeuristic fascination and caustic condescension toward his classmate, Rapha Artole, and the lad’s family. It also happens to be well written: B+. Using his natural talent for mathematics, Garcia insinuates himself into the Artole household as Rapha Junior’s trig study partner. After each visit, he writes what he claims are non-fiction accounts of the Artoles, but Germain analyzes as if they are part of a developing story.
It is hard to tell just how much of Garcia’s forays into the Artole house are truth or fiction, because the whole point is to keep the audience guessing. Ozon masterfully adapts Juan Mayorga’s play, toying with truth and reality in nearly every scene, yet keeping the film firmly rooted in its characters and their relationships. At times, it comes across like a comedy in the Annie Hall tradition, but it becomes steadily darker as the psychological gamesmanship intensifies.
Germain is the sort of arrogantly urbane character Fabrice Luchini was born to play. Perfectly exhibiting the cutting wit of a failed novelist, he could be the high-handed French cousin of Fraser Crane. Yet, it is really up to Ernst Umhauer’s Garcia to make it all work. He is convincingly creepy as the young master manipulator, but he also memorably expresses Garcia’s youthful insecurities at key moments.
The brilliant teacher-student tandem is backed-up by a big name French cast, including Emmanuelle Seigner, Mrs. Roman Polanski, playing against type as Rapha’s mother. A desperate housewife of an entirely different sort, she is surprisingly earthy and vulnerable. In contrast, Kristin Scott Thomas elevates the role of Germain’s gallerist wife Jeanne above a mere I-told-you-so commentator with her elegance and sly screen presence. Whenever you see KST on-screen you know you are in for something smart and sophisticated.