François Ozon at a screening of In Our House at the Walter Reade Theater. Photo: Julie Cunnah

At a busy SoHo hotel just after lunchtime, a group of journalists fussed with their notebooks and tape recorders in anticipation of French director François Ozon’s arrival. Ozon resembles his films uncannily: he is stylish, evasive, and engrossing; self-assured but needing affirmation. He arrived wearing a sweater—black like his scarf—one arm wrapped behind his back like a waiter approaching a table mid-conversation. It was as if this conjurer of intrigue were trying out the role of New York waiter, testing how it felt to approach a table deferentially. Were we witnessing a preliminary character study? (Or had we simply been watching too many Ozon films?)

Not tied to any one genre, François Ozon has made a heartfelt melodrama (Time to Leave, 2005), an erotic thriller (Swimming Pool, 2003), a period-piece farce (Potiche, 2010), and movies that combine all these elements, like his latest, In The House, which screened as part of Film Society’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Based on a play by Juan Mayorga, it stars Ozon regular Fabrice Luchini as Germain, a high school French teacher and failed writer who lives with his understanding but frustrated wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas). Given to reading his students’ pathetic homework assignments aloud to his wife, Germain discovers a single talented voice among them: that of Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). Germain encourages Claude to continue his writing project, which includes insinuating himself into the family of his unpopular classmate, Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), and snarkily reporting on their petit bourgeois activities. As Claude’s interests turn to seducing Mrs. Artole (Emmanuelle Seigner)—all the while writing about it for Germain’s perusal—Jeanne begins to question her husband’s motives.

In the House’s most striking performance comes from Ernst Umhauer, the young actor who plays Claude. Judging from his work in the film, Umhauer has a promising future ahead of him. Ozon initially sought actors who were Claude’s age, 16, but finally found that he needed someone a little older. At 21, Umhauer, had the “maturity and perspective” necessary for the role. “After casting him,” Ozon reported, “we worked a lot together, we did a lot of readings, and [worked with] with Fabrice Luchini too, to make [Umhauer] comfortable for shooting, because this was his first feature.”

Ernst Umhauer and Fabrice Luchini

Ozon has great esteem for Luchini: “I think Fabrice is a great actor, and his way of speaking and [performing] literature aloud is the best. He is a hard worker and great to work with. But, sometimes it can be a little difficult because he’ll call you at night and want to rehearse a scene for the third time. He is totally involved. And for this film, he was very happy because he loved the character of Germain and felt close to him. Much happier than on Potiche! Because with that film, he said ‘it’s Catherine [Deneuve]’s movie! It’s not my movie. I have the bad guy part!’ He was not so happy.”

Ozon is proud of what he sees as French cinema’s treatment of actresses over 40: “In America, cinema is first a business, an industry. In France, it is first an art. And we have a tradition of giving roles to older women. Look at someone like Catherine Deneuve, who is still making movies in the lead role—and not as the grandmother or supporting actress. Like Kristin Scott Thomas told me: ‘In France, I get better parts than in England and America, where I get cast as the grandmother or the auntie of the lead character who is a man.’”

Asked about his beginnings as a filmmaker, Ozon claimed that Eric Rohmer had an important influence on him when he was Rohmer’s student. Ozon found Rohmer’s practical approach to making movies especially inspirational, noting that “Rohmer was closer to the student with the Super 8 camera” than most directors. Ozon also maintains a special place in his heart for Fassbinder: “When I discovered him, I had the feeling he was speaking [directly] to me.” Today, Ozon “loves Almodóvar’s movies and James Gray, who is very popular in France.”

Has Ozon even thought about collaborating with one of these directors, perhaps in the capacity of screenwriter? “Yes, why not? But, I am very solitary, you see… I need fiction. I may be more comfortable with fiction than reality. Really, writers are like vampires, searching for inspiration as a vampire [does blood.] We are very dangerous people.”

Francois Ozon's In The House screened at Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2013.