The easy, practiced, nothing-to-it interplay between Fabrice Luchini (master of the injured look, whether the insult was real or imagined) and Kristin Scott Thomas (mistress of dry, high comedy and imperious confidence, even when her characters are falling apart) is reason enough to see the crafty comedy-drama "In the House."
Based on a Spanish play, writer-director Francois Ozon's film has Frenchified the material through and through. Ozon, whose works include the cool psychological thriller "Swimming Pool" and the more recent '70s-style show "Potiche," is a clever stylist as well as a keen observer of human misbehavior. "In the House" casts Luchini as the long-married upper-school literature and writing professor who embarks on a dangerous mentoring relationship with a particularly talented but borderline-criminal student essayist (Ernst Umhauer). Scott Thomas, as the teacher's gallery-manager wife, matches Luchini every step of the way.
Her character, whose gallery is on the ropes and whose tastes are at odds with The Public, has been reading her husband's students' creative writing samples for years. But there's something about this boy, Claude. He writes well, but heartlessly, in serial "to be continued" chapters, about his insinuating exploits as he ingratiates himself into the good graces of his new best friend (Bastien Ughetto). A catlike schemer, the 16-year-old Claude chronicles his friend's stifling suburban lifestyle. He's most interested in the "perfect" but bored mother (Emmanuelle Seignier) on the scene.
A director could shoot this same script an entirely different way, emphasizing the not-too-good-seed aspects of Claude's personality and the material's thriller possibilities. Ozon, however, has a more interesting agenda: that of arch, brittle bourgeois comedy, with an undertow of pain. As the teacher advises Claude on the finer points of developing conflict, fully fleshed characters and the like, he becomes a part-owner in the story being written. Then he and his wife begin appearing in the stories themselves.
The movie is entertaining — bantamweight, but quick on its feet. The humor lies in such moments as Scott Thomas, clucking over Claude's latest writing assignment ("Don't you find it shocking?") while surrounded in her gallery by an exhibition featuring blow-up sex dolls. Ozon doesn't push or inflate the story into more than it's worth. He allows his actors, particularly Luchini and Scott Thomas, to set the tone and keep us guessing.
No MPAA rating (some nudity, sexual material, language)
Running time: 1:44
Opens: Friday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema