Visually inventive, darkly comic, superbly acted. An auteur is born.
Ursula Meier has achieved a remarkable feat with Home, her feature debut. Not only has she scooped the star power of Isabelle Huppert in the lead, she actually gets her glacially Gallic leading lady to smile for a few scenes. And it’s not just the casting that’s a novelty (even if the initially cheery Huppert does unravel into almost obligatory neurotic meltdown); Home is a forensic, quasi-surrealist but unfailingly entertaining examination of contemporary Western family dynamics.
Huppert’s Marthe lives blissfully with her husband Michel (played with great sensitivity by Dardennes' regular Olivier Gourmet) and three children in a remote house, surrounded by empty fields but pitched ominously beside the dead-end of a motorway. They play hockey together, eat together, laugh (a little manically) together and, being French, unabashedly wander around naked and bathe together.
The claustrophobic, unsustainable nature of this closeness is thrown into stark relief when the long-threatened extension of the local ‘autoroute’ arrives, literally, on their doorstep, along with all the accompanying detritus and pollution of urban progress.
Initially, the family attempts to muddle through regardless of the high-speed traffic now cutting through their existence, resulting in a wealth of playful, startling images. Eldest daughter Justine (Adélaïde Leroux) continues her sole occupation of sunbathing in little more than bovver-boots on the newly exposed front lawn; meanwhile her younger siblings totter to school over newly laid tarmac, negotiating traffic and sticky surfaces in wellington boots, resembling a pair of baby storks.
The film’s strength, and its charm, lies in how the themes explored – fear of change, atomisation of family, contemporary (manmade) neuroses, the irresistible tide of urbanisation – are thoroughly and charmingly enwrapped in humour and imagery. Not only that, but Meier and her co-writers shore up the progressively dark, Ballardian vision with a cast of entirely believable, sympathetic characters.
Marion (Madeleine Budd), for example, as the geeky middle child – ill-at-ease with her body and in the shadow of her exhibitionist older sister – sets about transmitting her obsessive preoccupation with the health implications of this motor-invasion to Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein), her baby brother and human guinea pig. Marion enlists Julien to sample the grass for pollutants and helpfully circles spots on his back which she diagnoses as markers of lead poisoning.
Home is filled with touches like these, giving it the air of a watchable, idiosyncratic family drama, rather than the cold, cerebral exercise it might have become in another filmmaker’s hands. Like last year’s excellent but more forbidding Private Property, which also starred Huppert, a pinhole focus on the family home and its immediate surroundings creates all the suffocation and distorted sense of perspective of a great stage tragedy.
Yet Meier spins it off on a more surrealist bent – certainly owing a debt to the likes of Lynch and some great French forbears, including Tati, making Home ripe ground for metaphors: about the road (Meier describes it as ‘a road movie in reverse’), fleeing the nest and the post-lapsarian state of modern life, to name a few. Pretty nifty for a first feature, then.
The Huppert factor demands our attention.
Visually inventive, darkly comic, superbly acted – where’s the catch?
Prepare for this one to be rattling around the grey matter long after leaving the cinema. An auteur is born.