Literate to the point of bookishness, the new film by the eclectic and wildly patchy Ozon is more absorbing than it has any right to be. The tone recalls his early creepy psychosexual thrillers (notably the half-excellent, half-silly Swimming Pool), but with lashings of dark humour despite being more than anything else a meditation on the nature of writing.
Based, evidently rather loosely, on Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga's The Boy in the Last Row, it charts the relationship between Germain (the comedy veteran Luchini), a disenchanted literature teacher and frustrated writer, and Claude Garcia (Umhauer), a student who is much more than he seems.
Claude's "what I did on the weekend" essay stands out from the pile in a way that ought not to be too precisely spelled out: it details his visit to the house of classmate Raphael (Ughetto) and reports his fascination with "the scent of a middle-class woman" exuded by Raphael's mother.
To say that Germain is enthralled by the essay, which concludes with a tantalising "to be continued", is a serious understatement. He and his brittle art dealer wife (Scott Thomas) devour new instalments, relishing the frisson they deliver to their own passionless lives.
But as Germain goes further and gives some tutor's tips, the boundaries soon start to blur. We begin to wonder who is the writer and who the reader. Who is teaching whom? And is Claude's writing reporting on events or creating them?
It's a devilishly clever set-up, particularly when we start to see that it's Germain, not Claude, who is the main character: like Luchini's character, the state into which he is pitched is equal parts Hitchcock and Beckett, and as he becomes more enmeshed in what is unfolding. Ozon resorts to visual rather than verbal gags to up the ante.
The film loses focus in the final quarter - the drama's resolution seems weak, although the final scene is a cracker - but it's still an engagingly cerebral thriller with plenty of layers.
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Kristin Scott Thomas, Emmanuelle Seigner, Ernst Umhauer, Bastien Ughetto
Director: Francois Ozon
Running time: 100 mins
Rating: M (sex scenes, offensive language). In French with English subtitles
Verdict: An engagingly cerebral thriller