Saturday, May 19, 2007

BELGIAN CINEMA—Nue Propriété (Private Property)

What is so painful to watch in Joachim Lafosse's Nue Propriété (Private Property) is a woman's heart being converted into privatized property, which the men in her life (ex-husband, sons, lover) feel entitled to. That sense of unquestioned masculine entitlement proves infuriating and, ultimately, tragic for all parties involved.

Right off, you know something is wrong with the family scenario. The twin boys François and Thierry (real-life brothers Yannick and Jérémie Renier) seem too grown up to be living at home with their mother Pascale (the incandescent Isabelle Huppert). She works all day, feeds them, and irons their clothes while they play video games and stuff their faces watching television. Their age likewise makes uncomfortable a familiarity they have with their mother's privacy, not only when she tries on new lingerie in front of a mirror but—more shockingly—when Thierry assesses her nudity in the shower. Something is not quite right. Some boundary is not being set, let alone enforced. The scenario is charged through and through with a hazardous and self-serving infantilism. These young men do not want to grow up and become responsible in an adult world, their mother is incapable of setting boundaries, and their father thinks that all that's necessary is an ample and timely allowance.

By the time François and Thierry are shown bathing together and giving each other shampoos, you might as well spell arrested development with a capital "A" and a capital "D"—and, though Ed Gonzalez's chastizing Slant rant that only "pervs" would find anything erotic in the bath tub scene seems downright miserly—he's on to something in specifying that the scene is "justified" even if the behavior is not.

In what Variety's Jay Weissberg describes as a flawlessly calibrated performance, Huppert plays a woman who is "on the one hand yearning for an empty nest and on the other incapable of standing up for herself." She dreams of selling her house and investing in a new life by opening up a B&B with her lover Jan (Kris Cuppens), but the mere suggestion of her dreamt-of autonomy triggers a chain reaction of inappropriate behavior from her sons. François clings to her and suggests she take him with her to help out at the B&B and Thierry asserts the house and whatever money their father supplies is for the twins and not for her. Each family meal becomes a battlefield of glossed-over resentments and rising tension that is effectively gripping and nervewracking. Jérémie Renier has rapidly become the arrogant goodlooking guy you love to hate in the character of Thierry, whose selfish amorality is reminiscent of the role he played in L'Enfant; a comparison made again and again by critics and reviewers alike. I swear if I see him on the street I will spit at his shoes for selling babies and treating his mother so callously.

All of the performances in Private Property are solid and sound; but, I'm in complete agreement with Eye Weekly's Adam Nayan who offers that "the strongest presence in the film actually belongs to the director" whose static set-ups and long-take lensing mark an original approach towards depicting themes of psychological boundaries and physical confinement. Matt Riviera further reminds that the film's opening dedication reads "A nos limites...", setting up the understanding that "Private Property is indeed a film about boundaries, and what happens to people who have grown up without them."

"The only boundary not crossed," Jay Weissberg synopsizes, "is the one within the frame." Boyd van Hoeij equally extols Lafosse's camera work for European-Films.Net, where he compares the noteworthy "use of static imagery in which the camera does not move and the actors are thus confined inside the picture plane as if trapped, something which makes perfect sense thematically here" with "the Dardennes' trademark handheld camerawork, even if cinematographer Hichame Alaouie collaborated on both films (he was an assistant on L'enfant)."

That's why the film's bipartite coda is so impressive. First the parents are shown picking up shards of broken glass as if they have each finally accepted responsibility for picking up the broken shards of a marriage that has damaged their children. Dennis Schwartz interprets this as "a note of guarded optimism that the family can pick up the pieces from the wreckage and find a way to move forward without injuring each other further." Yet within a few moments of that seemingly resolute scene, Lafosse—in a final flourish of camera movement—breaks from the tightly-held frame he has untilized throughout the film to suddenly course away from the house down the road, which Boyd van Hoeij describes as "a literal and symbolic escape from the confines of the titular property."

07/31/07 UPDATE: Dennis Harvey weighs in on the film for SF360.


Paul Martin said...

My favourite film at the 2007 Melbourne French Film Festival (2 of my 4 favourites were Belgian).

Your take on gender was interesting, Michael, and may say more about you. Especially as the director doesn't seem to make judgements, leaving it to the audience.

My take may say something about me. I found the mother a little flirtatious with her sons (in front of the mirror) and her lack of setting boundaries had brought much domestic conflict upon herself.

As for the boys in the bath, I think English-speaking people tend to be a bit more homophobic and read more into this. I'm reminded of my readings about Almodóvar, in which he says the Spanish are a bit more blaise about bodily functions, for example. I think the director was challenging the audience in a non-sensationalist way. The same with the voyeuristic scene.

The father's role was the smallest, but he had the most profound line at the end when Thierry confronted him.

That final tracking shot was powerful, as was the almost complete lack of music. I liked the tone that was set by using background film noises during both opening and closing credits, reminiscent of Iranian cinema.

I agree that the star was the director who pulled together a cast who were all used powerfully yet understated. Lafosse used each to maximum effect. The brilliant Huppert could easily have overpowered the film but was spot on. It's because of films like this that I'm learning French.

I've also written a few words about this film.

Michael Guillen said...

Paul, as ever, thank you for your well-thought-out comments. This film has really stuck with me since watching it earlier today. I've loaned my screener out but I'm looking forward to taking another look at it.

My "gendered take" is more descriptive of a situation than ascriptive of blame. With all the men in the story rendered in such an unsympathetic pallette--the ex-husband is dismissive and uses his sons as leverage against Pascale; François, though seemingly on his mother's side, nonetheless impedes her independence by wanting to remain at her side rather than strike out on his own; and Thierry is completely selfish and bullish and--as mentioned before--has played into his father's guile with more than a little maliciousness. That he stands corrected in the end is the first fair thing that his father has done. This is the guarded hopefulness at the end of the film when both mother and father step outside the broken shards of their own interaction to speak to their troubled son. Up until then, however, I think the film is intended by LaFosse to register Pascale's isolation. Even her lover fails her after plans of selling the house become obstructed. So I maintain that my "gendered take" is not so much a projection into the film as what the director intended. That being said, I don't think he has let Pascale off the hook either. As you say, she has brought much of this on to herself by not setting and enforcing boundaries. Psychologically, I think it's a great danger for young men to be "strapped to the body of their mother" (as Robert Bly might say), whether they or the mother intend this to happen. For me, Huppert is constantly seductive. So much can be read into her slightest expression; you are invited in to wonder the moment light shifts in her eyes. If she is seductive with her sons it is less incestuous than simply wanting to be granted her sovereignty and her agency as a woman.

Michael Guillen said...

...oh, and with regard to the bath tub scene. Ed's comment about "pervs" was actually a clever joke and I was joking in response by saying, as a perv, he was denying me the luxury of my fantasies. But what I was really trying to get across was the kind of incestuous contract between either identical or fraternal twins that has often appeared in the literature. This is what diarist Anais Nin termed "the house of incest", which she patterned after Antoine Saint-Exupery (author of The Little Prince) whose relationship with his twin sister struck Anais as exclusive. It's as if they have a pact never to leave the dyad, which is (in effect) never to grow up. Eternal children tend to leave a wake of emotional devastation.

Paul Martin said...

Ah, this is what I like about films like this. Private Property fits into a 'type' of film that is my very favourite - nuanced and understated social gritty realism. Whether the director intended judgements or not, it is so subtle and understated that it doesn't matter. We all bring to it our own understandings based on our life experience, beliefs, values, realisations, prejudices, etc.

"more descriptive of a situation than ascriptive of blame" is a fair comment. I think that's the intention of the film, and the purport of the father's final words, which summed up the moral of the story, so to speak.

Maybe I should qualify that I identified with the father; I was denied - whether by circumstance or device - the upbringing of my children. I could relate to his situation. I don't think anyone was painted all-good or all-bad, but very real, very human. Everyone doing their best, as inadequate as that may be. And it was.

I also noted the parents' picking up the pieces and loved that symbolism. After what had happened, it was very powerful. When my son died last December, on the day of the funeral, his mother came inside for the first time in 15 years. While we didn't really talk then, a couple of weeks later she came over and we spoke at length without hostility. I really related to this aspect of the film. It so reeks with authenticity that it moves me.

I agree that the mother's relationship with the sons was never incestuous, either in intent or realisation. But I think there may have been an element of symbiosis there, which is undesirable but probably not uncommon in this kind of situation.

On a different topic, the actor who played the father played a small role in another good Belgian film that also screened at the 2007 Melbourne French Film Festival - La raison du plus faible (The Right of the Weakest) by Lucas Belvaux. It's a kind of social realist version of The Full Monty set in Liege, a depressed industrial area and the same region that L'enfant was set in. These unemployed and down-on-their luck guys employ a very different means of escaping poverty, but without the feel-good ending of The Full Monty. Well-worth looking out for.

Michael Guillen said...

Solely on your recommendation, I will seek that out.

Thanks again for your generous response. And especially for your keen awareness that the Heisenberg principle applies to film critics and their alleged objectivity as anyone else. We do, indeed, bring to films and our moviegoing experiences "our own understandings based on our life experience, beliefs, values, realisations, prejudices, etc." and I count this as a valid doorway through which to enter a film. I'm fascinated (and respectful) that you found your way into this film through an appreciation of the father's experience.

Paul Martin said...

I don't think film criticism is an objective or rational science or analysis as much as an appreciation of an artform or medium based on the aforementioned criteria. We all bring to a cinematic experience our own 'baggage' or 'tools'. 'Baggage' implies weight, while 'tools' can assist.

I don't think I took on the father's perspective because of my experience, but my experience enabled me to empathise with him. But his role was small. My appreciation was for the film as a whole, without taking sides. But I think you may understand that implicitly.

On a related tangent, my favourite segment of Paris, je t'aime was the Binoche scene, where she was lamenting the loss of her son. But I don't think it's because I recently lost my son; rather because it was Binoche doing a moving scene (reminiscent of her role in Three Colours: Blue.