Thursday, May 9, 2013

Student and teacher, but which is which?

Imagine that you are a man in your 50s, and that you once aspired to being an important novelist. Time has passed, and you find that your life has devolved into teaching uninterested (and mostly ungifted) students in a French town where your wife runs an art gallery. You know -- without question or doubt -- that your dreams have turned to ash.

If you can imagine such a man, you already know quite a bit about Germain, one of the main characters in director Francois Ozon's In the House.

Fabrice Luchini -- an actor who knows how to lose himself in the deluded self-seriousness of the characters he plays -- portrays Germain, a man we meet while he's grading papers and waiting for his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) to arrive home from work.

Germain's life begins to change when he discovers 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a student who takes care of his invalid father and who has been deserted by his mother. Germain quickly learns that Claude may have writing talent, although judging by the assignments Germain gives ("What I Did Last Week"), it's small wonder that most of his students don't give a damn.

It's just here, though, that Ozon begins to reveal his subject: the way we can become ruinously absorbed in other people's fictions.

In this case, the teacher plunges into the student's work. Claude decides to write about Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), a classmate who likes basketball and who appears to live an ultra-normal life with his mother (Emmanuelle Seigner) and father (Denis Ménochet).

Claude finds fascination in the apparent normalcy of Rapha's family. Germain encourages his pupil to immerse himself in the lives of this "typical" family. For his part, Claude needs little encouragement to become aroused by Seigner's Esther.

Ozon shows us what Claude is experiencing with his "adopted" family, but here's the tricky part. We see everything through Claude's eyes. Is he telling us the truth or is he inventing most of what we're seeing? Is he a perceptive documentarian or a budding novelist or, perhaps, a bit of both?

Once again, Ozon (Under the Sand and Swimming Pool) gives us a thriller unburdened by the need for conventional thrills, a drama in which tensions transfer from the characters to us as we try to work our way through the maize that Ozon constructs.

All of this takes place against an intellectual backdrop that explores the processes by which fiction is created and the consequences that can result from the conspiratorial bond between writer and reader.

Luchini is perfectly cast as a teacher who increasingly falls under the sway of a wily student, and Umhauer, who flashes an ambiguous smile, plays his part with malicious aplomb.

All of this builds to one of the most memorable concluding shots you'll see in any movie, a beautiful depiction of Ozon's themes. In fairness to Ozon, I won't describe the shot here. Discover it in a theater.

In the House deals with serious issues, but Ozon's touch is mostly light, and the story is not without humor, much of it rooted in the story's smart and devious fascinations.

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