There was a period of time from around 2000 to 2012 when it seemed like every major French movie that received distribution in the U.S. featured Isabelle Huppert as the female lead. Did she have some kind of special deal with the import/export office? Couldn’t Miou-Miou, Natalie Baye, Isabelle Adjani, Fanny Ardant or some other French actress close to the same age get some equal representation? Don’t get me wrong. Huppert’s talent as an actress is indisputable and she probably deserved the Best Actress Oscar for her go-for-broke performance in The Piano Teacher (2001), which received zero nominations from the Academy.
It’s also heartening to see any actress past the age of fifty getting steady work and not being relegated to a supporting role as the mother or grandmother of the 20-something female lead. No, the issue here is overexposure (Catherine Deneuve had the same problem for years). More importantly, Huppert often seems drawn to variations of the same edgy, extreme character in film after film which can get monotonous if you happened to see her consecutively in Ma Mere (2004), Les Soeurs Fachees (2004) and Gabrielle (2005). Not a hard feat to do since she averages anywhere between one to three movies a year. So, it was with some trepidation that I approached Private Property (2006, French title: Nue Propriete), by Belgium director Joachim Lafosse with – who else? – Isabelle Huppert in the lead. And once again she’s playing a neurotic and difficult character but there’s something quite different about this one.
Private Property is an emotionally intense study of a family coming apart at the seams but it develops slowly at first in static medium shots that began to accumulate tension as trouble develops among the three main characters. Huppert plays Pascale, a working mother living with her two college age sons Thierry and Francois (played by real life brothers Jeremie, the star of La Promesse and L’Enfant by the Dardenne brothers, and Yannick Renier), in a spacious farmhouse on a sprawling country estate. Pascale divorced Luc (Patrick Deschamps), the father, ten years earlier. He remarried and still lives nearby but is forbidden to visit the boys at Pascale’s home despite the fact that he was the one who bought the property.
When the movie opens we are thrust into the midst of a developing conflict between Pascale and her sons, particularly Thierry who alternately antagonizes and teases her. A pattern of unhealthy emotional co-dependency is quickly established as we observe how difficult it is for this threesome to break out of their claustrophobic little world. Thierry and Francois appear to be stuck in some form of arrested development. They have no ambition and appear content to let their mother continue feeding and providing for them while they wreck a motorcycle, shoot rats by the pond, play ping pong, watch TV or amuse themselves with computer games while waiting for the next meal. Their lazy, spoiled nature and sense of entitlement is obviously the result of bad parenting but who is to blame?
Private Property enters the realm of Greek tragedy once it reveals Pascale’s plan to sell the country estate and use the money to set up a B&B with her lover, Jan (Kris Cuppens), a local restaurant chef. The boys would have to figure out their own living situation. Of course, breaking the news to them is another matter. As the film plays out, Pascale moves out of the house and in with a friend, leaving Thierry and Francois to their own devices. Hurt and confused by Pascale’s abandonment, the two brothers’ symbiotic relationship breaks down into petty bickering and eventually physical violence.
The movie ends on a devastating personal note as the family, including the father, are reunited briefly under tragic circumstances. And then, in an astonishing closing shot, the camera flees the scene, backing out of the house, down the driveway, out into the country lane past the estate and further down the road as the farmhouse disappears into the distance while the music score – a frenzied string orchestra – functions as a wailing Greek chorus of despair.
It’s a remarkable performance, one of restraint, fragility and great sadness. She’s clearly a less than perfect mother but she’s trapped in a web of her own design. Unlike the cool, aloof and controlling characters she often plays, Huppert is completely vulnerable here, displaying human frailty and remorse. It’s also quite clear by the end, that the title Private Property is not just referring to Pascale’s country estate but to Pascale herself. The battle for possession is over her.
This was the third feature film by director Joachim Lafosse and, according to an essay by him on the film, was partly autobiographical. “I was personally confronted with this situation in my family,”This is what gave me the idea of writing the story of two brothers who treat their mother as if they were her parents. And she finds herself in the strange situation of having to ask their permission to break free.”
Private Property was a project that took seven years to reach the screen. Jeremie and Yannick Renier were also Lafosse’s top choices to play the brothers from the beginning and helped him develop the story. The result is a riveting drama that unfolds with the intimacy of a cinema-verite documentary and received almost unanimous critical acclaim in 2006. I think The New York Times review by Manohla Dargis succinctly captures what impressed me most about Huppert’s performance and why I am now a steadfast admirer: “Written by Mr. Lafosse and François Pirot, “Private Property” embraces the banal and the monstrous, and affords Ms. Huppert opportunity to astonish rather than overwhelm. She’s as restrained as Mr. Lafosse’s direction, weeping and still, rather than storming; director and actress twist the knife gently. The filmmaking is as unmannered as the story is uncluttered, with no visual tricks…”
Released on DVD in September 2007 by New Yorker Video, Private Property may be in danger of going out of print since New Yorker Films officially went out of business in 2009. It is possible that another distribution company could pick up the rights to Private Property and release it on Blu-ray in a remastered edition at some point.
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