French auteur, François Ozon's follow up to 2011's Potiche arrives in the form of another stage adaption: Juan Mayorga's The Boy in the Last Row. In The House, which picked up the top award at last year's San Sebastian Film Festival, is a jet black, yet oddly playful comedy about a gifted teenage writer named Claude (Ernst Umhauer), who is taken under the wing of his bored French teacher, M. Germain (Fabrice Luchini). Reinvigorated by the prospect of nurturing the boy's talent, Germain sets his pupil a series of assignments, and Claude begins to write about how he has insinuated himself into the home of a fellow student in order to get closer to his attractive, ennui-filled mother. As the voyeuristic Claude's stories become more sinister, the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur until Germain, and the viewer become complicit in the unfolding of the narrative.
Through Claude, Orzon explores the power that the author has over his audience, and the ease with which they can be manipulated. The direction is restrained and unfussy, yet Orzon remains in complete control throughout, masterfully wrong-footing his audience as Claude's narrative begins to melt into his own. The performances are all excellent, most notably Umhauer, whose devious smirk and piercing blue eyes conjure the perfect cocktail of allure and mischief. The film is rich with literary references, with Flaubert's Madame Bovary most explicitly alluded to. The school Claude attends is even named after the writer, and there are nods to many other cultural figures from Paul Klee and Woody Alan to Barbara Cartland. But, In The House never seems overbearingly academic or indulgent, nor is the labyrinth of possible interpretations problematic. Ozon is posing questions to his audience as opposed to answering them, but for something so open ended, the outcome is tremendously satisfying.
In This House is a highly intelligent, witty meditation on the art of storytelling and manipulation. Armed with a great cast and a sharp script, Ozon confidently toys with his audience by bending the rules whilst managing to avoid alienation or pretention. Formidable.