It took me a while to settle into this film, a 2006 Belgian production, French language affair (original title Nue Propriete – literally Bare Property), starring Isabelle Huppert. This was not through any failings of the film but rather that I’d set my expectations for something light and comic, and also French, only to discover at the literal last minute that it came without English sub-titles.
So, what was this family psychologogical drama about? Huppert plays Pascale, who has been divorced from Luc (the bear-like Patrick Descamps) for at least ten years. She lives with their twin children Thierry and Francois (played by half-brothers Jeremie and Yannick Renier). If I understand the Wikipedia explanation about property rights correctly, Pascale has the right to live in the property but not to profit from it. The problem is that, after a decade and a half of devoting herself wholly to her sons, Pascale wants to resume her life. She’s started a clandestine relationship with Jan (Kris Cuppens), an accomplished chef and is talking of opening a B&B. To fund this, she talks of selling the house.
That’s the practicalities of the situation. The film is about the relationship between the characters. Director Joachim Lafosse complicates this somewhat by not giving us an objective external view of Pascale. We see her for ourselves, externally calm, still upset and angry with Luc, who has never got out of the habit of dropping round whenever he feels like it, at one point turning up in her bedroom when she’s taking a nap, passive in the face of Thierry’s offensive talk, his total self-entitlement. We’re meant to be sympathetic to her but we don’t know the past history except from her side. At one point, having invited Jan to dinner (which he cooks himself), Thierry starts accusing Jan of not knowing about Pascale and what she’s capable of, and this prompts the recognition that we don’t either. We can only judge her in the light of the men surrounding her and confining her, and frankly when you look at them, you rapidly find yourself in complete sympathy with her!
I’ve already characterised Luc as controlling, and Thierry is a replication of him as surely as if he’d been cloned. It’s not until the end of the film, and by way of a severely belated correction from Luc, that it’s made explicit that Thierry blames his mother for the family breakdown, and hates her for it. His words towards her, his demands to know what she’s doing, where she’s going, his refusal to even countenance her selling the house, his open hostility to Jan (who in truth, is making one ham-fisted mess of their one meeting) and his constant demands of her – and his girlfriend Anne (Raphaelle Lubansu, who we note looks not unlike a young Huppert) – that they do what he wants, immediately, without thought of their own lives, depict him as an evil little bastard, a selfish tw*t.
Between these two, we cannot but be understanding of Pascale. She lives in her ex-husband’s house, unable to break free of his shadow, bringing up two boy who, now in their early twenties, show no signs of growing up or taking responsibility for themselves, one of whom is constantly ‘teasing’ of her by being as obnoxious as he can: the nice dress that makes her look like a whore, the red-tinting of her hair that he openly laughs at, but it’s all her fault for not seeing that he’s joking, oh yes, we’ve got your number, sonny.
Francois, in contrast, is more supportive, in an entirely passive manner. Thierry is the more forceful of the pair, who are twins, and thus bonded. He is mostly silent when Thierry is going off on one, but though he’s far more like his mother, to the extent that I detect the faint echoes of an Oedipus Complex, he’s a weak person and his encouragement always comes way too late and way too diffidently.
Both boys haven’t grown up and don’t want to grow up. Thierry has his studies in some undisclosed subject and Francois is ‘looking for a job’, the process of which seems to be his sanding down doors and shutters. Only in comprison to his poisonous brother is Francois at all a positive figure.
And Jan’s no bloody use either. He and Pascale have sex in places like the back of an estate car out in the forest (not cramped at all) but as soon as he’s introduced to the boys, he walks out on her, doesn’t want to know: supportive or what? Admittedly, he’s dropped right in it by Pascale who, having told him of her problems, wants him to try to talk to the boy on her behalf, at which he’s bloody useless. Given Thierry’s nature, this was always going to be a complete waste of time and only serves to jack up the boy’s hostility to the point where he’s telling her to fuck off, to her face, repeatedly, enough so that she loses her temper (about ten years too late) and belts him round the head, screaming at him.
This leads to the film’s turning point. Pascale leaves, requiring a breather, recognising that Thierry is impossible and won’t change. Luc won’t take any responsibility for looking after them: she wanted the divorce, it’s her bed, let her lie in it.
Left alone, Thierry’s selfishness is extended to Francois who, resentful of his mother having been driven away, starts fighting back. Anne comes for the weekend. Sex is disrupted by Francois’ insistence on playing video motor-racing games all night, he tells a mocking story about Thierry’s childhood. When watching TV, Thierry starts trying to feel Anne up and Francois watches them. Infuriated by the atmosphere between the brothers, Anne leaves. Francois mocks Thierry’s pleas for her to come back, leading to a short, violent brawl in which Thierry pushes his brother off, causing him to fall and demolish a glass coffee-table. Francois lands half off-screen and lies still.
This is where Thierry falls part. What’s happened to Francois we don’t know. The film deliberately won’t tell us, nor the eventual outcome. But it’s serious and potentially fatal. Thierry stands there, speaking his brother’s name. Instead of helping, or calling an ambulance, he calls Dad, then he runs off and hides. The camera sits unmovingly on him as, in the deep background, first Luc’s car then an ambulance then Pascale’s arrive outside the house, running in. He takes himself to Anne’s but can’t/won’t speak. She drives him back to the house and dumps him there.
Luc and Pascale return. He’s lying on his bed, refusing to speak, pretending that if he doesn’t admit what he’s done it won’t have happened, the sniveling little merde (excuse my French). Luc won’t press him but Pascale will. He tries to run away, calls her a bitch, who is responsible for all this. It’s not his fault, nothing was ever his fault, a big boy did it and ran away…
And then Luc, at least ten years too late, grabs him by the throat, drags him outside, shouts in his face that his mother is not a bitch. And in a long-overdue and no doubt ineffectual explanation, he tells Thierry that they tried, but it didn’t work out. That was all.
The one note of optimism is in the defeated slump of Luc’s shoulders, the merest suggestion that, having seen what anger and hatred has led to, he might have learned. Silent in the living room, Luc slumps to his knees and begins, carefully, to collect the shards of the coffee table. After watching him for thirty seconds or so, Pascale kneels and starts her own pile.
Thierry? I think he’s irredeemable, that his ingrained sense of self-entitlement, indulged for so long by Luc, is too thick to be penetrated even by this shock.
The film offers only one more shot, a continuous shot from a camera affixed to the back of a car, driving away from the house along country roads until the screen fades to black. We assume this to be Pascale, leaving forever, and perhaps we can infer that Francois’ injury has been fatal, though it’s clear she had more or less given up on her other son as well.
Either way, it’s a non-ending, but what else could be possible? Here was a family who were fucked up beyond all recognition, save that there are millions of them. When there is no ending, a decision must be made to stop somewhere. In it’s way, this is a dynamic non-ending, not one produced through inertia, lack of energy or imagination.
Not what I was planning for a genuinely sunny Sunday morning, but thought-provoking and involving nevertheless.