Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: "In the House"

“In the House” is either not clever enough, or too clever for its own good.

This French drama is about a teacher advising a gifted student about a story he’s crafting based on his experiences worming his way into a schoolmate’s family. The teacher gives constant feedback, encouragement intermixed with criticism, and it soon becomes clear that the writing is directing the real-world interactions, rather than the other way round.

This is a nifty idea from writer/director François Ozon (“Swimming Pool,” “Potiche”), who adapted a play by Juan Mayorga. But it telegraphs its intentions and outcomes too broadly, so there’s a sense of everything unpacking itself exactly as we knew it would.

The result is a movie that thinks it’s being very coy and subtle, when viewers will see it as over-obvious and predictable.

Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, an owlish high school teacher of literature. He’s a failed novelist – something he admits freely – and burnt out on the job, complaining annually to his art gallery manager wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), that this year’s batch of students is the worst ever.

But Germain is intrigued by Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), a quiet boy who sits in the back row and shows promise. For his obligatory what-I-did-this-summer essay, he writes about sitting in a park staring at an upper-middle-class house with a seemingly perfect family, and finding a way to insinuate himself into their midst.

He ends his essay with a promise “to be continued” – installments being a rare thing in public education writing assignments. Germain gives Claude a B+ and encourages him to continue the story.

Things go along with the school year, with Claude befriending the classmate who lives in the house, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). A lonely, virtually parentless kid, Claude ingratiates himself with Rapha’s parents, Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), a bored housewife who dreams of designing houses, and Rapha Senior (Denis Ménochet), a sports-obsessed middle manager who’s fixated on not getting enough respect at work.

At first Claude’s main focus is Esther, but Germain scolds him that having a teenager with a crush on a middle-aged mother is too clichéd. So the story moves into developing the Rapha characters, and their intrigues with Claude.

Germain and Claude refer to all these people as “characters,” though it’s left deliberately unclear how much of Claude’s writings are fabrications. At one point young Rapha turns up dead in his bedroom, having hanged himself, but after Germain frets about the boy’s absence at school the next day, it turns out he just had the flu.

Later on, Germain will actually invade the action in the house, offering observations and reproach for what is transpiring.

Of course, it’s not hard to guess that the real object of Claude’s machinations are his own teacher – something Jeanne, who religiously reads the episodes herself, surmises more quickly than her husband: “He’s manipulating you. He’s the one teaching you a lesson.”

“In the House” is sometimes engaging, but it’s too much an exercise in examining the creative process than establishing believable characters and putting them through some paces. The concept is novel, but the execution barely merits a passing grade.

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