François Ozon’s inventive, intense drama In The House bares the voyeurism inherent in all stories—and the class-consciousness inherent in voyeurism. Fabrice Luchini plays a bored, misanthropic high-school lit teacher who becomes fascinated by the creative-writing exercises being turned in by one of his lower-class students, Ernst Umhauer. The teenager writes about his obsession with the seemingly perfect suburban family of well-off classmate Bastien Ughetto, which Umhauer has managed to infiltrate by becoming Ughetto’s math tutor. After each new paper, Luchini suggests how Umhauer could strengthen his narrative and his characters, as though living out his own fantasies vicariously by telling Umhauer what to do in his private life. Or maybe it’s just that the teacher is processing real life as fiction, after years of thinking of his students only as abstract representations of everything wrong with society.
In The House is playfully meta-textual, as Ozon asks viewers to question what’s actually a part of Umhauer’s story, and what he’s just making up to please his mentor. It isn’t easy to blend reality and fiction in this way, but Ozon—adapting a play by Juan Mayorga—finesses the trick by filtering everything through the perspective of Luchini, who doesn’t care much about what’s true and what Umhauer is just concocting. The teacher is more bothered by Umhauer’s snide, uncharitable characterizations of the bourgeoisie, given that he and his museum-curator wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) are in the comfortable middle class. So while Luchini shows little interest in Umhauer’s home—where the boy lives with a disabled single dad—he urges the kid to empathize more with his subjects, and to write about how Ughetto’s mother (Emmanuel Seigner) covets a more glamorous life, and how the father (Denis Ménochet) is sweating out a business deal to manufacture knock-off products with a Chinese supplier.
That knock-off subplot isn’t incidental. Much of In The House is about how something that isn’t real—like a story—can still be beguiling. Ozon begins with Luchini reading Umhauer’s first paper aloud, letting viewers conjure their own accompanying images. And throughout the film, as Thomas stresses over her next gallery exhibit, the artists she considers—including one who has patrons put on earphones and listen to him describe art—end up having a lot in common with the movie’s theme. Even one of the montages that opens In The House—shots of hundreds of students of different classes and races, all wearing the same school uniform—invites viewers to consider how much presentation affects reception. All of this “What makes for a good story, and what will a person do to keep it going?” contemplation could’ve come off as too clever or too confusing to have any relevance. But Ozon keeps Mayorga’s own narrative clear and compelling, and emphasizes the shifting privilege of being either the rich kid on display, or the poor kid who watches. All the way up to the stunning final shot, Ozon urgently asks whether, for storytellers, it’s better to be on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out.