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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?
Before long, Germain is tutoring Claude just as Claude is tutoring Rapha. As a frustrated writer, he attempts to help Claude develop his skills and talents by analyzing, criticizing and guiding the story as the boy produces new chapters. But Jeanne wonders if, perhaps, he has developed a sexual fixation on his protégé. After one of Claude’s erotic installments, Germain takes him to task: “The latent desires of the perfect family? The father, the mother, the son — is this Pasolini?” (I love a good “Teorema” joke.)
Meanwhile, Jeanne curates a struggling gallery called the Minotaur’s Maze, after the mythological dual-natured man-beast. Her increasingly desperate attempts to procure popular work raises issues of what is art and what is simply commercial manipulation — questions Germain also raises about Claude’s work. Is the goal of his writing to create literature or to compete with Barbara Cartland?
And then Germain starts to appear in the story, commenting on it and suggesting revisions while it is in progress. The voyeuristic aspect of Claude’s story is essential to its appeal, and one of the illicit pleasures of storytelling and moviemaking in general, but voyeurs are inevitably implicated in what they see. Eventually, Germain becomes an active participant in the story, so involved in its creation and cultivation that he conspires with the writer not only to change events in the story but to take questionable actions in his life outside the story to help it continue … which then become new wrinkles in the story.
“In the House” might well be called “In the Story” because that’s where it plays out: the house in the story and the story in the house. Ozon has great fun finding cinematic ways to toy with narrative devices, so that the house also becomes a metaphor for the story, with its various levels, compartments, pillars, stairways, partially open doors, mirrors and that Claude can use to observe what’s happening. (We can see him watching and listening — but can they?) It’s telling, then, that Madame Artole is preoccupied with remodeling her house, which is perhaps the same as wanting to rewrite her own story. By the end, “In the House” becomes a remodeled “Rear Window.”
Yes, but is it art? In certain respects, the viewer of “In the House” is put in some of the same positions as the characters. To me, the film seems pretty slight and maybe a bit too literal (it’s based on a play by Spanish writer Juan Mayorga). After a while, it seems to run out of places to go, but for most of its running time, it’s a wickedly clever divertissement.