François Ozon, In the House, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 105 minutes.

MAKING HIS BREAKTHROUGH WORKS at the tail end of the New Queer Cinema, François Ozon was once devoted to charting psychosexual extremes in movies like See the Sea (1997), Criminal Lovers (1999), and Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000). But after the prolific director’s masterful study of grief, Under the Sand (2000)—a film that revived Charlotte Rampling’s career—Ozon has too often toggled between kitsch misfires (2002’s 8 Women, 2010’s Potiche) and projects weighed down by long, inert melodramatic passages (2005’s Time to Leave, 2009’s Hideaway).

Liberally adapted from Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy in the Last Row, Ozon’s latest movie, In the House, at first suggests a return to the anarchic adolescent protagonists of his early films, whose uncontrollable desires were inextricably linked with destruction and mayhem. Sixteen-year-old Claude (Ernst Umhauer) piques the interest of his literature teacher, Germain (Fabrice Luchini), who’s perilously close to pedagogical burnout, with a well-crafted essay for a prosaic assignment about “My Last Weekend.” Claude details a Saturday spent helping a classmate, Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), with his math homework at his pal’s home; the budding wordsmith is intrigued by Rapha’s close-knit family, particularly his mother, Ester (Emmanuelle Seigner), who emits “the singular scent of a middle-class woman,” the one provocative phrase in the script (which can still, a week after seeing the film, cause me to have olfactory hallucinations).

Germain, a failed writer whose sole novel was published twenty years ago, begins meeting with Claude after class, critiquing the boy’s further chapters about his infiltration of the Artoles’ snug fortress. These ongoing installments Germain eagerly shares with his wife, Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas), a gallerist whose exhibition space, the Minotaur’s Maze, displays large photomontages of swastikas composed of penises. This dumb sight gag typifies the complacency that soon dominates In the House, eclipsing the occasional sharp observation about narrative and audience. (Though even those pleasures are fleeting: Jeanne’s declaration that “art teaches us nothing” rings as a biting aphorism until one realizes that it’s a truncation of Henry Miller’s “Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life.”)

“You confuse desire with story,” Germain tells his pupil at one point, long after he’s committed a professional infraction to ensure that Claude can keep returning to Rapha’s home and thus produce more pages. As for the instructor’s own desire, Jeanne nonchalantly asks her husband if he lusts after his student. Teacher isn’t hot for Claude but—like fans of radio serials, soap operas, or shows on AMC or HBO—simply burning to know what happens next. Yet as Claude becomes more deeply embedded in the Artole household, what ensues becomes less and less intriguing; when Germain himself begins to appear in the later chapters, told through flashbacks, the recapitulations tip over into the unendurably whimsical.

In the film’s closing scene, after Claude—in his lone instance of satisfying, sexy menace—remarks, “There’s a way into every house,” it’s hard not to compare him with his predecessors in Ozon’s filmography, those guilty of breaking, entering, and seducing (or repelling, or sometimes both), like Marina de Van’s homicidal backpacker in See the Sea. In the sixteen years since that featurette, Ozon has followed a clear trajectory: from épater to embrasser le bourgeoisie.

Melissa Anderson

In the House opens April 19 in New York and Los Angeles.