"In the House" starts, innocently enough, with a homework assignment. French high-school teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) is grading a stack of essays on the subject of "How I spent my weekend," when he is floored to discover — amid the despair-producing monotony of what amount to literary shrugs — something that feels a little like art. Or, if not that, at least the flicker of an active imagination.
The author is a shy 16-year-old named Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who always sits in the back row, and who has submitted a slightly snarky but closely observed description of the family and middle-class home of a classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto). On the pretext of helping Rapha with his math, Claude has recently insinuated himself into his friend's house, after claiming to have spent much of the past year on a park bench outside of it, yearning to get inside.
Creepy? Yes, but also a page-turner.
As it turns out, Claude — who begins to submit new chapters in the story several times a week — isn't so much obsessed with Rapha as he is with Rapha's mother (Emmanuelle Seigner). Although initially disturbed by Claude's voyeurism, Germain also recognizes his pupil's talent. He sees Claude as an ordinary hormonal teenager, albeit one with a precocious gift for words. At the same time, Germain simply wants to know what happens next.
Then there's the little matter of the tale's veracity. Germain, who decides to offer Claude intensive tutoring and editing help outside class, isn't quite sure how much of the narrative is fact, and how much fiction.
Neither are we.
Filmmaker Francois Ozon, who loosely based his script on a play by Juan Mayorga, keeps the audience off balance, never really letting us know when the line has been crossed, and by whom. Is Claude a sociopath, or is Germain? Or are the budding memoirist/novelist and his eager reader/editor/collaborator simply doing what all creative types do: transform the chaos of life into art?
These are fascinating questions. But "In the House" isn't just an intellectual exercise. The film's story is as much of a compulsive "read" as the story-within-the-story is. As viewers, we're complicit with Germain, because his story is as hard to put down as Claude's is. Germain's relationship with his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) soon becomes as fraught as Claude's is with Rapha, who harbors an infatuation with Claude to rival his classmate's infatuation with his mother.
Yes, it's complicated. But Ozon lays it out methodically, in a way that makes the action seem — if never quite logical, and often quite troubling — then at least understandable. As Germain tells Claude, the best plot developments surprise the reader, while seeming inevitable. Good writing is honest, even as it exposes warts or causes pain.
Ultimately, "In the House" is a story about the power of narrative, which is both seductive and healing, as anyone who has ever nursed a psychic injury with a good book will testify. As the writer and cartoonist Lynda Barry once said, "We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay."
Three and a half stars. R. Contains obscenity, sex, nudity and brief violence. In French with subtitles. 105 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time.