What exactly is the private property of Joachim Lafosse's troubling movie of the same name (Nue Propriété, last Saturday and Sunday at the Cable Car as part of the Providence French Film Festival)? Is it simply the remote house over which beleaguered divorcée Pascale struggles with her grown sons, twins Thierry and François? Is it the inhospitable landscape of their uneasy relationships, which both mother and sons defend vigilantly? Or is it Pascale herself, whose mid-life claims to her own destiny and desire would deprive her neotenic sons of food, shelter, and an object of their inchoate lust? Lafosse, who wrote and directed, assiduously avoids answering these questions; he is interested not in resolution but in tensility. The real question for him is not What is private property?, but What is it worth?
The house at the center of the movie is a sprawling rural chateau (the full expanse of which we glimpse only in the film’s final scene). Ten years after “winning” the estate and the responsibility for the children in her divorce from porcine and prosperous Luc (Patrick Descamps), Pascale, underemployed and listless, is ready to sell the property to raise money for a b & b she hopes to open with her chef boyfriend, Jan. When she announces her intentions at one of her small family's many shared meals, Thierry (Jérémie Renier) wolfishly dismantles not only his mother's plans to start a business but also her already-fragile self-confidence while weak-willed older brother François (Yannick Renier) mutely watches. Chastened, Pascale quietly repudiates her idea; things remain as they have always been. This scene plays out repeatedly during the movie: when Pascale gets a haircut, Thierry calls her whorish; when she meets guiltily with an appraiser, Thierry intimidates her; when she invites Jan for dinner to help her convince the boys that it’s time for them to move on, Thierry seems prepared to attack him until she restores peace by renouncing her intentions and urging everyone to simply eat. Eventually, we know, something will have to happen.
Cinematographer Hichame Alaouie captures these episodes in dark single-take shots that persist long past the point of discomfort, embarrassment, or guilt; he knows that nothing defuses eroticism like showing too much. Here, the camera documents, never emotes. Even when the action, such as it is, reaches its climactic pitch, Alaouie is an implacable observer. His patience, like Lafosse’s, is almost clinical: how long, he asks, can a scene stretch before it breaks?
Given such charismatic actors, the answer must be very long indeed. Jérémie Renier is terrific as the pyretic younger brother Thierry. He is a handsome kid with a cold, hard glint in his eye. Renier’s real-life brother Yannick plays brooding mama’s boy François; he finds the sinister in François’s loyalty to his mother. Isabelle Huppert, wan but still lovely, conveys Pascale’s stunted yearnings without resorting to bathos. There’s nothing sentimental, nothing maudlin, in Pascale’s dilemma: she’s still very much a child, too.
It’s hard not to look at Nue Propriété as a broad indictment of capitalism, and it’s harder still to imagine a movie this saturnine—a tragedy about home ownership!—being made in the U.S. Pascale isn’t galvanized by the contest over property the way a spunky American heroine might be; she’s paralyzed by it. Her only capital is this house, bought with her husband’s wealth; her job, we suspect, is far away and unfulfilling; and her duties at home go unrecognized and uncompensated. She is severed from any urban center; cut off from the dignifying and validating relationship of marriage to a powerful earner; and imprisoned in her refuge. Capitalism, Lafosse suggests, is really no better than serfdom. And the price of participation is always too high.
* House of Sand and Fog is a tragedy around a house, but it's really more about dispossession than ownership. In Nue Propriété, ownership is dispossession: our claims to places and people demand only the surrender of our sovereignty.