"Private Property" makes money matter.
Some routine matters that can have quite dramatic consequences in real life aren’t deemed sexy or colorful enough as fare for actual drama — so when they do show up to drive a narrative, the effect is quite striking. Such is the case with director Joachim Lafosse’s excellent "Private Property," opening Friday at the Roxie. It’s about a non-rich family torn apart by money matters — among other things, but principally money — a conflict that happens all the time off-screen but takes center stage seldom enough to seem very fresh here.
On the surface, Lafosse’s fourth feature is pretty typical French (or in this case officially Belgian-French-Luxembourg) arthouse fare: An intimate relationship piece, low-key and nuanced rather than high in melodrama. And like the best of them, it’s an accumulation of finely observed, sometimes ambiguous details that make the sum engrossing — though in excerpt any one scene might evoke ye olde phase "watching paint dry."
An impressive, rambling old farmhouse in the picturesque Belgian countryside is home to middle-aged Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) and her non- identical-twin sons Thierry and Francois (played by real-life brothers Jeremie and Yannick Renier). Though in their twenties, the boys have scarcely made overtures toward building independent adult lives. Thierry seems to be taking a class or two and has a sorta-girlfriend (Raphaelle Lubansu). Francois does a bit of handiwork. But mostly they lay around watching TV, playing video games, screwing around on a dirtbike, and so forth. Though mom works (it’s not quite clear doing what), basically everybody is supported by Luc (Patrick Descamps), the husband and father she bitterly divorced over a decade ago.
This domestic trio acts more like squabbling-yet-inseparable siblings than parent and offspring. The boys tease Pascale mercilessly, backing off with "Mom, we’re just kidding" whenever it gets too cruel. They casually bathe in front of (or sometimes with) each other. They’re not incestuous — just really, really creatures of mutual habit.
But Pascale has a secret — an affair with neighbor Jan (Kris Cuppens) — and as that involvement grows more serious, she contemplates starting a new life as well as a new marriage. Perhaps the two of them could open their own restaurant or B&B — if, that is, she sells the farmhouse that is her only asset. Of course, it is also home and all-around meal ticket for her sons, who naturally freak out once they catch wind of the plan.
It’s questionable whether she even has the legal authority to sell — Luc says the house belongs to his sons, not his ex-wife — but the mere possibility fast drives wedges between all parties concerned. It’s a classic collective-trap situation in which each feels unfairly thwarted by the other, resentments building until some disastrous explosion becomes inevitable.
Huppert is usually the magnetic focus of movies in which she appears, but here she successfully merges into a piece whose principal characters are given equal focus. Lafosse (a twin himself, though he says the screenplay co- written with Francois Pirot isn’t autobiographical, at least not very) encourages improvisation that results in family-life rhythms utterly convincing even when they’re teasingly ambiguous. "Private Property" is the kind of movie whose power creeps up stealthily, but leaves you a bit stunned nonetheless.
Body Contact: Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr’s "One to Another"
[SF360.org Editor’s note: This review was published originally in indieWIRE on June 27, 2007. The film opens in the Bay Area this Friday.]
There’s an ever more prevalent, if still marginalized, subgenre in international films today that is difficult to classify. In such films as Larry Clark’s "Bully" and Gael Morel’s "Le Clan" (released here as "Three Dancing Slaves"), groups of teenagers descend into violent oblivion while the filmmakers dispassionately, purposely objectify their supple flesh. The gap between the actions of the characters and the voyeurism of the filmmakers makes for an awkward, sometimes stimulating dialogue, even if it also leaves the actors somewhat adrift. The recurring image of these films are young, lithe bodies, supine, entangled: in "Le Clan," three eye-catching brothers lay together in a tableau less motivated by their characters than the filmmaker’s whims. In "One to Another," French co-directors Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr have their young actors lie atop, next to, and around each other with youthful, sexual abandon, and in a move similar to Morel’s, intimate an incestuous relationship between the film’s two main characters, brother and sister Pierre (Arthur Dupont) and Lucie (Lizzie Brochere), just by the sheer level of proximity and undress the two seem to share. It’s a teasing, half-formed approach to character, and the film, tiptoeing around its own narrative and ideas of sexuality, feels not fully formed.
The story itself, which Arnold based on a true story he read in the newspaper, concerns the murder of Pierre, and the investigation into his death taken up by Lucie. Floating in and out of the past and present without warning (often, you’ll only know what timeframe you’re in if Pierre enters the frame, hale and hearty), "One to Another" follows the distraught Lucie’s attempts to untangle the truth, although more often than not the film feels much less interested in the outcome of the mystery than in the myriad flashbacks presenting the malleable sexuality of hot Pierre and his even hotter friends, often seen shirtless (and in the film’s first, and best image, beat-boxing as afternoon silhouettes against a sunny red rock wall) and in various states of canoodling, sometimes with Lucie, sometimes with each other. It’s Pierre’s declared bisexuality that anchors the group of friends (who also perform together at local clubs in a small-time band), the rest of whose sexual preference remains as vague as their personalities, which usually seem shell-shocked either with grief or perhaps guilt.
"One to Another" almost forthrightly eschews forward motion or drama in its depiction of all this angst, favoring a shooting style so definitively casual that it’s hard to muster up much visual interest. Dupont’s Pierre of course remains a necessary abstraction, yet Brochere’s Lucie often comes across as even more inert. Most easily identified by their matching birthmarks, Pierre and Lucie stick in the mind as flesh and little more; perhaps that was the intention, as it is uttered in the film, "Only a body can know another body." Yet one can’t help but want for a little soul to finish off the equation.
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