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Private Property (15)

Nicola Mostyn finds this French social drama exhaustingly realistic

Published on June 3rd 2008.

Private Property (15)

Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) is a single mother to twin boys Thierry and Francoise (real life brothers Jeremie and Yannick Renier) living in the family farmhouse in Belgium. The boys are grown up, but remain at home. Her estranged ex-husband has a baby with his new partner and Pascale, in a clandestine relationship with next door neighbour Jan, dreams of starting a new life. But her sons are in no hurry to fly the nest…

“The film is a subtle and intense exploration of the position a woman might find herself in, post-divorce”

This is a curiously domestic film, pedestrian, almost, in its muted colours and lack of background music. This neatly mirrors Pascale’s world-weariness, and amplifies the film’s small but life-flattening frustrations, most of which are caused by Pascale’s immature and disrespectful sons.

The films begins with the three eating breakfast together, the boys indulging in some gentle mocking of their mother. As the film continues, we find that the mocking is not-so-gentle and that Thierry, at least, holds a vitriol towards his mother which simultaneously rejects her and yet refuses to let her go.

Not much happens for much of the film; all the action focuses around the mother’s rather desultory attempts to jump-start a change – to think about selling the family house, to introduce Jan to the boys – but these are futile, fruitless moves and as a viewer you get the sense that you have turned up in the middle of a long-standing complex situation which is set to run and run.

The greatest sense of aggravation comes from the twins themselves, who are intensely annoying and just a little bit creepy.

The Reniers convey wonderfully the intimacy and animosity which exists between brothers. Supposedly in their early twenties, the fact that they could easily pass for thirty makes the twins dependence on their mother, their sudden fights and their shared baths seem all the more disturbing.

The sense of frayed nerves and fraught tempers is exacerbated by the use of abrasive noises, which sound sharp against the music-free backdrop and the overall effect is of a pressure cooker situation. After relentlessly building up the sense of claustrophobia and stasis, director Joachim Lafosse eventually allows the inevitable snap – with awful consequences.

The film is a subtle and intense exploration of the position a woman might find herself in, post-divorce – living in a home she has no right to sell, looking after children who refuse to become adults, unable to properly challenge her situation and divided, it seems, between a potential new life and the intimate relationship she has with her sons. Isabelle Huppert is excellent as the tired, irascible mother who seems to be doing as much to fuel as to fight the situation in which she finds herself.

There is quite a lot of sex in this film, and even more food. In the bedroom people may be getting what they want, but sitting at the dinner table is where the battles are taking place. There are, it seems to the watcher, no winners.

“Did you ever stop and think about the kids?” Pascal’s ex husband asks her at one point, and you feel the depressing inevitability of her situation, a woman whose life has been spent on those around her, and yet not valued at all. In fact, the portrayal of her fatigue and frustration is so depressingly convincing that you start to get a bit tired of the whole situation yourself and, as the camera leaves the farm house following a strange and disturbing denouement, you feel rather glad to leave them all behind.


Private Property, until Thursday, Cornerhouse, Oxford Street, 70 Oxford Street, Manchester, M1 5NH

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