François Ozon’s latest work adapts Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy in the Last Row, centred on the bizarre friendship between a jaded high-school literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), and one of his precocious students, Claude (Ernst Umhauer). Wryly funny and benefiting from a jaunty – if slightly repetitive – score, Ozon’s film pits Claude’s fierce intelligence and ability to infiltrate the virulently middle-class family of a classmate, Rapha (Bastien Ughetto) against Germain’s professional inadequacy and middle-class satisfaction. When Claude begins writing about Rapha’s life for a school assignment, Germain is transfixed, becoming a literary critic, and along with his pretentious, art curator wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), examining the merits of what might be a slice-of-life work of naturalism, a class satire, or something insidiously in-between.
Such is true of the film itself; its dual narrative begins naturalistically, serving as a potent satire of the self-important, eternally unsatisfied nature of the middle-class, before leaping off to become a slyly surreal meta-drama in which we can never quite be sure what is real and what is not. Ozon’s commentary on narrativity and criticism – for we will surely analyse the film to death just as Germain and his wife do Claude’s story – feels cutting and fresh, even if the middle-class obnoxiousness does itself become a little wearisome on occasion.
One particularly compelling facet of Ozon’s narrative is Claude’s fascination with Rapha’s mother Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), signalling a sexual awakening of sorts, and slowly easing us into the more over-the-top, knowingly questionable elements of the narrative. The mincing with reality is both smart and sexy, as Claude runs increasing rings around everyone in his midst, and his ambiguous genius – and possible sociopathy – ratchets up to deliriously funny levels. It’s all brought home by Ernst Umhaue’s fascinating performance, only his second feature turn, holding together the various spinning plates that could so easily have collapsed under their own portent.
Francois Ozon’s interplay between narrative and meta-narrative girds this smart if occasionally too-precious drama.
In the House is released in UK cinemas March 29th, 2013.
This article was first posted on October 14, 2012