Francois Ozon’s almost perfect comedy about a teacher obsessed with a student, who’s himself obsessed with a classmate, has a sneaking satiric soul dressed up in the pretty attire of a hothouse melodrama. It’s like a Lifetime original potboiler starched up by a postmodern literary theorist with a crackling wit and clockwork timing. The film turns its story inside-out and upside-down, shaking the possibilities out with spring-cleaning fervor and examining each and every one for its dramatic potential. Ozon has taken the welcome step of making his characters as self-aware of the story they’re inhabiting as the audience is of the one they’re watching. For once, the people on-screen aren’t caught blindsided by something the audience has been waiting to happen for 15 minutes.
The central player is Germain (Fabrice Luchini), a grumbling yet spry teacher at a French high school named for Flaubert. The school’s name is a constant mockery for Germain, who derides each new batch of teenagers whom he tries to infect with a love of literature as semi-barbarous half-wits. “It’s not their ignorance,” he spits out with the sniper-like precision of a cool-headed misanthrope whose pulse never races and temperature never rises, “it’s imagining the future.” While slashing-and-burning through a pile of pathetic student compositions, Germain comes across an interesting piece by one of his shyer kids, Claude (Ernst Umhauer). Intrigued by Claude’s suspenseful essay about his obsession with the family of a quiet classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) Germain takes Claude under his wing as a kind of writer-in-residence project.
More installments of Claude’s essay follow, with Germain and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) left hanging at each “to be continued” as though it were the end credits for a pulpy telenovela. One strand of the film follows Claude’s story of insinuating himself deeper and deeper into Rapha’s family. He’s obsessed in particular with Rapha’s mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), seeing in her an exemplar of listless suburban wifedom: “the world’s most bored woman.” Claude himself is a cipher, a quiet-mannered and whip-smart observer with delicately statuesque features who admits only obliquely to family issues and the fact that he lives in a neighborhood Rapha would never visit. Claude’s obsession with Rapha’s family seems to come straight out of the stalker handbook, with the possibly disturbed outsider insinuating himself weed-like into a seemingly perfect bourgeois household, seducing each member in turn, and wrecking the whole unit in the process. Meanwhile, the school is starting to notice that student and teacher are spending a lot of time together, and Jeanne begins to have her doubts about Germain’s true intent.
Ozon (who adapted In the House from a play by Juan Mayorga) doesn’t just stay clear of the ripe cliches inherent in this sort of story, he flits between describing the action itself and commenting on it. Germain, a frustrated writer who thrusts classics (Flaubert, of course) on Claude, becomes an editor of sorts for this work-in-progress. Blurring the line instantly between reality and fantasy, Germain pushes Claude to take his (supposedly autobiographical) pieces in different directions, deriding one characterization of the “perfect middle-class” family as too cynical, and another development as worthy of “a bad farce.”
It’s no surprise that deeper problems bubble up from this Freudian stew of parental issues, Germain and Jeanne (who is as bored as Esther, but more aware of it) being childless and Claude on the hunt for a home. But Ozon’s light touch and allergy to cliches of either the sentimental or cynical variety, combine with the romping soundtrack and sparkling performances — particularly from Lucchini and Umhauer, who share a clear, lucid detachment that somehow doesn’t read as malevolent – to create a singing comic burlesque about desire and authorship that never fails to surprise.