French director François Ozon's latest, the insidiously creepy domestic thriller "In the House," ties knots in your stomach as it walks its characters through a moral swamp of truth and fantasy.
Mr. Germain (Fabrice Luchini) teaches writing and French literature in a Paris high school, where years of lackluster students and esteem-boosting educational theories have left him jaded. He shares his frustration with his wife, Jeanne (Kristen Scott Thomas), an art gallery manager worried that her gallery's new twin-sister owners (both played by Yolande Moreau) are too provincial to approve of her sexually frank artists. Ozon's inclusion of a sexual blow-up doll with Hitler's face is, presumably, a commentary on artistic overreach, or something.
Emerging from this sea of mediocrity is Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), a student who not only does his assignments but seems to show a creative spark. In his writing, Claude details how he has befriended a classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), and insinuated himself in Rapha's home where Rapha's dad (Denis Ménochet) talks about his ego-deflating sales job, and where Rapha's still-hot mom (Emmanuelle Seigner) pores over decorating magazines and dreams of a home makeover.
Germain warns Claude about writing mockingly about his classmates, but still finds Claude's story compelling enough to tutor him through more chapters. But the lines between student and teacher, between writer and subject, and between documentation and fabrication all become blurry.
Ozon, adapting a Juan Mayorga play, generates maximum tension by burrowing into the deepening tête-à-tête between Germain and Claude, in which manipulation and rule-breaking threaten to undo them both. Claude's depiction of the middle-class paradise of Rapha's house, and the student's growing attraction to Rapha's mom, is intercut with wicked asides from Germain, who enters the scene like a ghostly critic.
The only fault of "In the House" is the ending. Germain tells Claude that a good ending is one that the reader (or viewer) doesn't see coming, but then can't see how it could have gone any other way. Alas, Ozon fails to achieve that, with a finale that's muddled and a bit out of left field.
'In the House'
A writing teacher takes a student under his wing, but the story that emerges spells trouble for them both, in this sharp French thriller.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, May 17.
Rating • R for sexual content and language.
Running time • 105 minutes; in French with subtitles.