Private Property

2006, Movie, NR, 105 mins


Belgian writer-director Joachim Lafosse's subtle slice of family dysfunction unfolds against the backdrop of a picturesque house in the French countryside, where a divorced mother and her two grown sons play out an increasingly bitter drama of intense mutual dependence and suffocating frustration.

Middle-aged and restless, the divorced Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) shares what was once the family house with her sons, fraternal twins Thierry and Francois and (brothers Jeremie and Yannick Renier), who are in their 20s and showing no signs of doing anything with their lives. Angry, overbearing Thierry, superficially the more adult of the two, is half-heartedly taking classes so marginal to his interests that they're only mentioned when he needs Pascale to give him a lift into town, and spends hours fixing up the house. His girlfriend, Anne (Raphaelle Lubansu), is more a prop than a partner, the pretty blonde his brother doesn't have. The gentler Francois, whom Thierry taunts as a mama's boy, tinkers with a motor bike his father, Luc (Patrick Descamps), paid for. Both brothers adore their father, but he's remarried to a younger woman, has a new baby and sees less of them than he used to – coming to Pascale's house invariably sparks a screaming fight and Thierry and Francois lack the wherewithal to visit him, even though he lives just a few miles away. Neither brother works; they play video games and table tennis, ramble around the property, shoot rats, squabble and wrestle like adolescents. They alternately depend on and taunt their mother, complaining about her cooking, calling her a spendthrift who takes advantage of Luc and calling her a whore. "Just teasing," they say when she calls them on their nastiness, which Thierry invariably initiates. Pascale doesn't know how to push Thierry and Francois out of the nest, but she's sick of working all day then coming home to clean and cook for two grown men. Her blossoming relationship with Flemish neighbor Jan (Dirk Cuppens) emboldens her to think about a future free of oppressive motherhood: She considers opening a bed and breakfast in the south of France with Jan, selling the house for start-up money. Both Thierry and Francois consider the house theirs, but it's Thierry who flies into a brutal rage at the idea of being dispossessed, and his childish rage precipitates a chain of events that shatters the family's fragile balance.

Fine performances, notably from Huppert and Jeremie Renier -- star of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's acclaimed L'ENFANT (2005) -- are the main attraction, but Lafosse's razor sharp dissection of relationships strained to the breaking point is hypnotic in a road-accident kind of way. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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