2006, 95 minutes, foreign drama, directed by Joachim Lafosse, France, French with English subtitles
Isabelle Huppert is an actor whose every movement and gesture is a measure of her character’s emotional weight. In Private Property she’s a seething study in resentment, boredom, and frustration. Huppert plays Pascale, a divorced woman living with her twin young-adult sons, the boyish Francois (Yannick Renier) and the bullying Tierry (Jeremie Renier), in rural Belgium.
That these are people whose lives have become unnaturally intertwined is made clear in the first scene in which Pascale models her new lingerie for Tierry and Francois. The tensions that hold the three together boil over when she announces that she’s going to sell their house and use the money to open a bed and breakfast. Tierry’s bullying then escalates into a campaign of belittlement and sabotage against his mother that draws Pacale and Francois closer together. Pascale’s bid to leave behind the sclerotic life that she’s probably most responsible for creating seems like one part escapist fantasy, one part emotional betrayal, and one part rescue effort. There’s also something pretty funny about a member of this dysfunctional triad becoming a proprietor of that universal symbol of quaintness, the B & B. Huppert turns in a prismatic performance that’s reminiscent of her masterful turn in The Piano Teacher. She’s great at playing characters who are victims of their own choices and weaknesses. As Pascale she’s someone whose attempts at change simply increase the speed at which tragedy unfolds. The film ends with an act of violence that rather than changing the family’s life forever ensures that it will remain the same.
Private Property is shot in somber colors and dim lighting with lots of distance shots. If this sometimes makes it hard to get a lock on the characters physical particularities, it also enhances the sense that these are people so mired in some primal, Oedipal dissolution that who they are as individuals may not matter anymore. They’re less a family that’s gone awry than one who has fallen prey to the entropy that self-actualization normally pushes to the edges of shared life. Scene after scene of them eating together creates a dull domestic rhythm that barely contains the sordid undercurrents of this family’s life. There’s such a sense of claustrophobia in Private Property that it’s a shock when at the end you see for the first time how big the house is that Pascale and her sons live in. If the symbolism in this film is sometimes a little heavy handed (Tierry and Francois getting stuck in the mud) that’s okay—after all, Isabelle Huppert’s in it.