A rigorously controlled family drama benefiting from an ideal pairing of form and subject, “Private Property” is rising helmer Joachim Lafosse’s best pic to date. Tense family dynamics threaten to explode in contained shots acting as visual manifestations of their inertia — the only boundary not crossed is the one within the frame. Boasting a script so clear and airtight that shrinks could use it for family therapy courses, the sole caveat is the unrelenting unpleasantness of the stronger-willed son. Combination of positive critical response and the Huppert name should result in modest biz, including Stateside.
Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her twin sons Francois (Yannick Renier) and Thierry (Jeremie Renier) in a large house bought by ex-hubby Luc (Patrick Descamps) after an acrimonious divorce. Dark-haired Francois is the gentler of the two, brow-beaten by his more forceful blond brother. The latter has a tense relationship with Mom, quick to criticize every move that threatens the status quo.
Neither brother does much: Thierry is still in college and Francois is between school and life, both content to while away time.
Thierry blows a gasket when Pascale hints she’s thinking of selling the house and opening a B&B, immediately crying to Dad about his mother’s “betrayal.”
Thierry’s behavior toward his mother is monumentally inappropriate, playing his parents off each other with the same skill they used in putting the twins between their own bickering disputes. Pascale avoids confrontation with her infantilized children at all costs, refusing to enforce borders and ignoring behavior that should have been punished long ago.
The house alone, presented almost as a separate character, remains unaffected by the tensions within. Pascale and the twins are seen eating (meals are inevitably loci of contention), lounging in front of the TV, or in Pascale’s case taking to bed, in an unbreakable cycle of stultifying routine that appears to be postponing an inevitable tragedy.
Scrupulously avoiding favoritism, Lafosse divides screen time among the three mains, though the force of Thierry’s personality inevitably absorbs the most attention. Jeremie Renier (so memorable in the Dardenne brothers’ “The Child”) makes Thierry a thoroughly unlikable though believable character, an overgrown, entitled bully.
If real-life brother (but not twin) Yannick Renier is overshadowed, he’s still much more than a cipher, a confused and directionless guy uncertain how to move forward and unsure whether he even wants to. Huppert, a late casting decision, calibrates herself flawlessly, on the one hand yearning for an empty nest and on the other incapable of standing up for herself.
Similar screwed-up families have been presented before, but Lafosse’s originality lies in the lensing: He maintains a stationary camera in all the interiors until the last few minutes, allowing the figures to move in and out of the frame but rigidly enforcing the frozen window. When catastrophe strikes at the end, Lafosse doesn’t need to wildly jiggle the visuals: After his painstakingly controlled setups, only a little movement is needed to make the implosion disturbingly vivid.