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'In the House' provides an overtly playful look at family life

The latest from Francois Ozon, with Fabrice Luchini as a bored English teacher, is another "return to form" — if you liked that form to begin with.

Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer and Emmanuelle Seigner star in "In the House." Credit: Jean-­Claude Moireau Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer and Emmanuelle Seigner star in "In the House."
Credit: Jean-­Claude Moireau

‘In the House’
Director: Francois Ozon
Stars: Fabrice Luchini, Ernst Umhauer
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) globes

Once upon a time, Francois Ozon ruled the art house. A self-styled enfant terrible of French and international cinema, he made maddeningly elusive art films (“See the Sea”), tackled unfilmed scripts by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (“Water Drops on Burning Rocks”) and gained the trust of aging matrons like Charlotte Rampling (“Under the Sand,” “Swimming Pool”) and Catherine Deneuve et al (“8 Women”). But “enfants” grow up — or at least their audiences do. Ozon’s work in the last decade hasn’t attracted nearly the attention it did previously, and Ozon's career is the type where every new film is dubbed a comeback, even if it’s just another perfectly adequate addition to an oeuvre that will look impressive in retrospect.

Ozon’s latest “comeback” — after 2010’s well-liked “Potiche” — is his most overtly playful since his heyday. Fabrice Luchini plays a high school lit and composition teacher bored with his career and bored with his pupils. Upon discovering that one of them, the remote Claude (Ernst Umhauer), is actually a promising man of letters, he latches onto him and gives him an assignment: worm his way into the lives of a jock and his parents to see what constitutes the “perfect” family. (That the “perfect mom” is played by Emmanuelle Seigner, aka Mrs. Roman Polanski, is one of the film’s better jokes.) Claude’s reports on his findings, with him uncovering not a few sneaky transgressions, turn into serials, which Germane reads with the lip-smacking expectation of a stay-at-home parent watching his “stories.” But is Claude making it up?

If “In the House” is a return to form — and it’s worth noting that 2007’s “Angel,” which went unaccountably straight to video in the U.S., is rather excellent — it’s a reminder that said form was rarely much more than pleasant, and often self-satisfied to a fault. Like much Ozon, “House” rides out an amusing premise without deviating much from the course. Once you get what Claude, and the film, is doing — which holds back considerably more than his other, nastier suburban assault, 1998’s “Sitcom” —there’s not much to expect beyond predictably “unpredictable” twists. Also like past Ozons, there’s always the acting, never not lovely, with a never-better Luchini paired nicely with an inevitably Kristin Scott Thomas-y Kristin Scott Thomas as his contemporary art gallery-running wife. (Cue easy jokes about contemporary art.) That Ozon is actually hugely compassionate towards his suburban targets, moreso than those intruding upon them, is both good and less good.

 
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