Mentors and Machinations

Director François Ozon delivers a tense look at the teacher-student relationship in 'In the House'

It gets worse every year. Germain (Fabrice Luchini) sits at the kitchen table grading papers, lamenting to his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), that the students just aren't what they used to be. The first assignment of the year: Write about your weekend. "Saturday I ate pizza and watched TV. Sunday I was tired and did nothing," contributes one student. "Thirty minutes, two lines. Forty-eight hours in a teenager's life," Germain moans.

But the teacher does find one student who shows promise. Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer) has turned in a rather riveting couple of paragraphs about ingratiating his way into the upper middle class home of a classmate, a house he has been watching all summer to get a glimpse of how the other half lives. Claude's home life is far from pristine—his mother left when he was 9 and his father is unemployed—so his curiosity about this other family is understandable. And his writing is strong. But one thing that Germain doesn't notice right away is the looming menace behind Claude's words, so thankful is the teacher to have something worth reading for a change.

Germain takes Claude aside and begins mentoring him, steering the student to do more work on the same subject. Claude becomes friendly with his classmate Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) and Rapha's parents, who, like the teacher, can't see the machinations beneath the surface that the audience is served on a silver platter. We know something's bound to happen here—we just don't know what.

Director François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women) has adapted a play by Juan Mayorga and gives it real cinematic weight. Often, theatrical pieces don't translate well to the screen. Big musicals can fare better, but smaller character studies are usually not staged elaborately, and when they're spun into movies, that confinement can hurt the production. Ozon manages to change the scenery throughout, quickening the pace and heightening the tension as we go.

In what is a totally voyeuristic exercise (with a beautiful final shot mirroring Jimmy Stewart's point of view in Rear Window), Ozon watches Germain watching Claude, who of course is watching Rapha. And his point is probably that very thing, since we're a more voyeuristic planet than we've ever been, thanks to social media, camera phones, reality shows and TMZ. Ozon does not spare Germain his judgment: At points throughout In the House, the teacher clearly steps over a line, is aware he's doing it, and still prefers the potential quick fix of his actions over what his ethics tell him is the right course of action. He's become hooked on peering into someone else's affairs. Jeanne confronts him about his pet project almost daily, even once insisting that her only sex life is hearing her husband read about someone else's. If this were an American film, Claude would very likely have a bigger strategy in mind—take down the pervert teacher, get revenge on Rapha for reasons X or Y—but that doesn't show up here. He's an emotionless kid, one who thinks he deserves something for the hand he's been dealt. But that's as deep as his motivation goes. It's enough, though, because Umhauer is terrific as Claude and Luchini is even better as the teacher whose comeuppance is gradually more obvious to everyone but himself. And when it's no longer clear if Germain is interested in the writing or becoming addicted to the secret—when the horizon completely fogs over—the same thing just might be happening to you.

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