Trespassing signs have never been much of a deterrent for Judge Jesse Ataide.
Family dysfunction, French style.
There comes a time in the life and career of every actress where the switch is made from sexy leading lady to more motherly roles, and at long last, it seems Isabelle Huppert has finally reached that point. Yet she shakes off the label of "matronly" in every respect, and so far her mother roles have been cut from quite a different cloth than most. Consider Joachim Lafosse's Private Property (Nue propriété), the second film in just about as many years where Huppert plays the mother of a teenage son and an Oedipal complex is more than just hinted at (the other, more blatant example is the notorious 2004 film Ma Mere).
The first shot of Private Property finds Huppert standing in front of a mirror, trying on a skimpy, lingerie-like shirt as her twin teenage sons (not twins but real-life brothers Jérémie and Yannick Renier) watch from the doorway behind her. It's a startling but effective introduction into tightly constricted world where the film takes place. The action begins when, one night during dinner, Huppert casually informs her sons that she's considering selling off the family home so she can have the financial freedom to start a new chapter in her life, most likely with their neighbor (Kris Cuppens). The mere mention of change causes the delicately-balanced equilibrium of Huppert's household to quickly descend into utter chaos, with frightening results.
North American audiences have become acquainted with Jérémie Renier through his work with the Dardenne Bros., including La Promesse and the Palme d'or winning L'Enfant and Yannick Renier appears in the upcoming Les Chansons d'amour (Songs of Love), directed by none other than Ma Mere director Christophe Honoré. The real-life family connection between the Renier brothers is undeniably present in their depiction of twin brothers that share an intimate, tight bond despite possessing clashing personalities. Cain and Abel overtones are found in abundance throughout Private Property, and indeed, as the film goes along the parallels to the Biblical story only become more pronounced. Furthermore, Huppert is saddled with many of the whore-like qualities traditionally associated with Eve, particularly in her willingness to sacrifice everything in her present to some vague promise of a brighter future. Not surprisingly, Huppert is able to flesh out more in her character than was probably originally written in the script. It's a conflicted performance, managing to be both deeply introverted and flighty and extroverted at the same time. Along the way she crafts a portrait of a woman recognizing that she's not getting any younger but is also just as aware that her body is just about the only weapon she still possesses in a relentlessly phallocentric situation. While I wasn't quite as impressed with Huppert's subtle performance as a lot of others seemed to (which is not to say she's not very, very good), with Private Property Huppert certainly continues to demonstrate why she's considered one of the greatest—and most sought-after—actresses working today.
With the exception of several slightly creepy sequences where the relationships between Huppert and her sons seem just a bit too casual, initially Private Property doesn't seem a whole lot different than a lot of dour, dark-toned dysfunctional family dramas Europe has produced in recent years. But as it goes along it develops an unpredictable, menacing power that finally, inevitably erupts in tragedy. This is accomplished through Lafosse's ability in creating a claustrophobic atmosphere as a household begins crumbles within a tightly contained space, and his long, lingering camera shots that emphasize a general feeling of voyeurism (there are countless shots of characters watching each other via windows and mirrors). And the final, extended tracking shot—unveiling this introverted little universe in its entirety for the first time—is unexpectedly unnerving in its simplicity and straightforwardness.
Unfortunately, the image of the quality of this New Yorker disc leaves something to be desired. The colors seems a bit off (rather anemic-looking), and the image is a little murky. While this doesn't really detract from the film (in some ways it's actually quite fitting), it's definitely a disappointment. Two audio options are provided, including a Dolby 2.0 track and a massively underutilized Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound track that seems rather unnecessary considering that the film tends to emphasize long silences. English subtitles are provided, though unfortunately they are not removable. The only extras include a theatrical trailer and brief interviews with Lafosse and both Renier brothers found in the liner notes.
In all, Private Property is a film well worth seeking out. After a while, it really manages to get under your skin.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Theatrical Trailer
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