29 October 2007

Private Property

Full Credits from IMDb

Directed by: Joachim Lafosse
Written by: Joachim Lafosse & François Pirot

Watch the Trailer (no subtitles)

Grade: B-

Private Property (Nue Propriété, au francais) is conspicuously contemporary-French; anyone who's seen some recent French character pieces like The Bridesmaid or The Piano Teacher should find its aesthetic style familiar, from the digital texture and the long takes to the uncomfortable suggestions of incestuous sexuality.

Private Property moves slowly, focused on developing its characters rather than providing action because the characters are the story and their interaction is all the action you're going to get. Even the most patient and meticulous character portrait, though, must ultimately give way to some brand of narrative excitement, and Private Property is no exception; but when it does so it feels unremarkable, inspiring more of an apathetic "oh" than an involved "oh shit." It's an intimate glimpse into a complicated family unit, a tempered but contentious domestic drama set around the kitchen table and in front of the television, but when it's all over there seems something pointless about having gone through the whole thing, something a little esoteric about the drama. (Note that the most sympathetic character shares the first name of the co-author, a hint of possible self-indulgence.)

Private Property's main redeeming virtue is that it's a fine actors' piece, and most of its complexity comes from the players' glances and gestures. (Grudgingly, in fairness I suppose we could give Lafosse some credit here as well.) Isabelle Huppert, who at this point never disappoints, leads the talented ensemble, starring as a put-upon divorcee with two grown-looking sons, real life brothers Jérémie and Yannick Renier. Her strained and combative relationship with her ex-husband manifests itself in her relationship with her sons, especially Jérémie. She longs for the boys to move out of the house and out on their own so she can sell it and use the money to open up a bed and breakfast with her neighbor and lover, Kris Cuppens, but the sons, led by the headstrong Jérémie, insist she cannot sell the house, forcing her to remain in the role of mother she has occupied resentfully, so it would appear, their entire lives.

If that makes Huppert sound sympathetic in a "do your own thing, girl!" kind of way, it isn't that simple. Huppert confounds our expectations of a materfamilias by not behaving like we might imagine a mother should, namely by putting herself before her children. (Is that an American expectation?) She seems like a woman feeling held back in her life by her family, tethering her to a life, and symbolically a house, that she doesn't and probably never did want. "How long are you going to fuck up my life?" she asks Jérémie. He, like he did in L'Enfant, plays an overgrown manchild, mean and immature as in the opening scene, when Huppert is modeling a new dress in the mirror, he tells his mother, jokingly at least, that she looks like whore.

It's hard to take sides with anyone in Private Property, as all the characters come across as discomfitingly selfish. Speaking of discomfiting, there are some peculiar suggestions of improper relations between Huppert and Jérémie, particularly early on: Huppert pees with the door open as Jérémie passes back and forth, which might not be so bad except that soon after she showers in front of him, with no curtain drawn, as he brushes his teeth and leers at the mirror. The point is, I hope, to drive home the association between Jérémie and his father, played by Patrick Descamps (although that doesn't explain the Bros. Renier shampooing each other's hair in a shared bath); in many scenes, Jérémie seems like more a husband to Huppert than a son, and their fiercely antagonistic relationship, that culminates in an act of indirect matricide, mirrors the one between Huppert and Descamps. The point is that, unfortunately, the sins of the elders are inherited by the children, and one of the final images is of the two parents on their knees literally picking up the pieces...of a shattered glass table, but it's too little, too late.

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