A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
In “The Kugelmass Episode,” a 1977 short story by Woody Allen published in the New Yorker, an unhappily twice-married humanities professor at New York’s City College enters Flaubert’s best-known novel, has an affair with Emma Bovary, and winds up in a “Remedial Spanish” textbook pursued by “a large and hairy irregular verb.” In François Ozon’s playful comedic suspense thriller “In the House,” a 16-year-old student at Lycée Gustave Flaubert writes himself into a serialized class paper that ensnares its subjects and its readers.
The movie begins at the beginning: with the start of a new school year and the announcement of a new policy mandating school uniforms for students, or “learners,” in the progressive administration’s preferred term. Lit teacher Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini), whose double name evokes both Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and his dual roles as character and reader in the story-within-the-story, assigns his students a simple “How I Spent Last Weekend” essay, and the insipid work they turn in is distressingly poor.
Except for one effort by Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), who submits a tantalizing fragment about worming his way into the house of a classmate, Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), whom he describes in an adjective exercise as “ordinary” and “affable.” Claude offers to help the struggling student with his math homework. An only child living with his disabled father, Claude has spent the summer watching and fantasizing about the Artole house, where sweet, naïve Rapha lives with his loving middle-class parents, Rapha père (Denis Ménochet) and Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner). As many of us have done when we’ve glimpsed little domestic movies playing out in lighted window frames, he’s taken to imagining the lives going on inside the house and wants to discover more.
Claude’s assignment is hand-written on two sides of a single sheet of lined notebook paper and ends with an enticing parenthetical “to be continued …” Germain reads the piece out loud to his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), and in no time, both of them are hooked — not just by the story but by the young writer. How much of the story is nonfiction and how much is imagined? How reliable is the narrator? What narrative devices are at work — in Claude’s continuing tale, and in “In the House”? Who are these characters really, and what do they want? Who’s manipulating whom, and why? Is Claude sexually attracted to Rapha’s father (whom he imagines soaping up in the shower), his mother (whom he watches making love with her husband) and/or Rapha, who seems to be developing a crush on him? Is something sinister going on? What happens next?