***1/2 (out of four)
Bizarre and deliciously intriguing, “In the House” is not a feature-length adaptation of the mid-'90s, LL Cool J-starring sitcom of the same name. If it were, the first four words of this review probably would not be there.
This sometimes-hilarious French dramedy explores the way we engineer our lives as entertainment, and the point at which escape overcompensates for what's being escaped. Burned-out teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) delights in 16-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a student with a rare command of words. His class assignments recount Claude's new friendship with Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), a classmate Claude tutors in math as a means of entering Rapha's house and seeing how a supposedly perfect family lives. He notes the “middle-class curves” of Rapha's bored mom (Emmanuelle Seigner of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and describes Rapha's life with both admiration and judgment.
Meanwhile, even when he must help Claude and Rapha cheat to maintain their arrangement, Germain encourages Claude—the more to provide fresh material to share with Germain's wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). She's desperately trying to make her gallery a viable business, even if it means resorting to featuring blow-up dolls.
“It's not a sex shop,” she asserts,” It's an art gallery.”
Likewise, much of “In the House” is open to interpretation. Adapting Juan Mayorga's play, writer-director Francois Ozon (“Swimming Pool”) playfully layers truth and fiction until it's difficult to separate reality from our own exaggerated view of it. Do we associate primarily with people who are reflections of ourselves? How much do we know about a person or place after spending, say, a week together? The film's relationships are complicated and deceptive, with a disturbing undercurrent of attraction between adults and an underage storyteller.
Germain's fixation on Claude's almost pathological examination of Rapha tingles with the exciting tension that can come from hearing about strangers' ordinary lives. To Rapha, playing basketball with his dad means the world. To Claude, his perception skewed by his own unhappy family situation, it's absurd to revolve happiness around whether or not a ball falls into a hoop. “In the House” captures why we do what we do, and the extent to which stories reflect both the writer and the reader.
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