An outstanding film from Belgium, Nue propriété displays its thematic hand in its dedication: “à nos limites.” Joachim Lafosse, directing from his and François Pirot’s original script, presents a negative example, showing a family for which normal boundaries have blurred and become indistinct, attracting disastrous consequences. For ten years, following her divorce from their father, Luc, Pascale (Isabelle Huppert, as usual excellent) has raised twins Thierry and François on her own. Now their lives are about to be irretrievably upheaved.
It is not quite accurate that Pascale, as she at one point claims, put her life on hold in order to raise her two sons; rather, she dedicated herself to certain priorities in her life at the expense of others. But this deceptive/self-deceptive notion of her degree of self-sacrifice is typical of the inaccuracies that are woven into her divorce and its aftermath. Each of the four characters directly involved in the divorce—Pascale, Thierry, François and Luc—has his or her own distortions and falsehoods to uphold in order to navigate the tumultuous waters into which the divorce has cast them.
Pascale, although she is the one who wanted out of the marriage, sees herself as victim and martyr as well as Supermom. Moreover, to justify her hardworking, financially strapped life post-marriage, she has cast Luc as the villain, even telling her sons at one point, “If you ever become like [your father], I’ll kill myself”—an astounding threat, inasmuch as it is hitched to her (mis)perception of reality and can therefore provide her sons no clue as to what might trigger her ultimate displeasure with them on this score, although neither they nor we can possibly believe that anyone so self-centered as Pascale would commit suicide. Indeed, Pascale’s theatrical threat is remarkable for its capacity to bring into concert all the strands of her sense of victimization and martyrdom, making of her canceled marriage an unending imposition as though the marriage were intact and ongoing, given the potential for her sons in some meaningful way to repeat their father.
Thierry, a college student, has especially succumbed to Pascale’s portrait of his father as a louse. In order to justify her dissolution of the integrity of the homelife, she has brainwashed her sons into believing what she probably has persuaded herself to believe: that their father somehow took advantage of her in the divorce outcome—this, despite the fact that she divorced him, and the three of them now live in what had been the family home, paid for, as Luc is quick to point out, by the money he made as the family provider.
Thierry’s studies are in part a means of postponing reality, the necessity of supporting himself and living on his own. We see this tendency in his twin brother as well. François does nothing, except odd jobs around the house. We sense this holding pattern in which the boys are more or less trapped derives from three sources: their mother’s constant disparagement of their father, which poises them for similar abuse if they should become, like their father, a responsible adult; their spoiled nature, encouraged by Pascale’s having made them the centerpiece of her life by (among other things) attending to most of their needs—for instance, she does all the cooking, house cleaning, washing and ironing, and she drives them around in the one family car; and, however misguidedly, their desire to stay close and “take care” of their mother emotionally, whose life, she has convinced them, their father all but destroyed. François, the “sensitive” one, especially has succumbed to the role of a comforter and protector, while Thierry, the surly, arrogant, more spirited one, chafes under the yoke of his conflicted feelings.
Luc has remarried, making him only that much more of a perpetual thorn in Pascale’s side. Luc and his younger second wife even have a baby; although there’s an early reference to this child, when we first see Luc holding the baby, the sight comes as a shock. It is outrageous how blithely this self-centered man has “moved on.” He is openly affectionate to both grown sons; he gives them whatever money they need, and also offers financial assistance to Pascale, who would rather die than accept. But he takes no responsibility for the end of his and Pascale’s marriage. We in the U.S. recognize his ridiculous position as the Reagan rationalization. Ronald Reagan would always explain that his first wife divorced him, the implication being that he wasn’t really responsible for the end of his first marriage. But of course he was; the failure of nearly all marriages is the responsibility of both partners, no matter which one institutes divorce proceedings. In any case, Luc isn’t as involved in his sons’ lives as he ought to be. To a certain extent, this is due to the fact that Pascale doesn’t want him to be, and she is nasty about the matter. It is also the case that his primary function as a dispenser of cash has eroded his confidence that his sons love him (which they do) and rely on him on other grounds, causing him somewhat to retreat. In the main, however, his priority has become his new family. Nevertheless, nearly every appearance that Luc makes testifies to the fact that he is a thoroughly decent, kind-hearted soul and not at all the monster that Pascale has painted.
As noted, the boys are grown; so what we see are the result of the divorce, the distorted picture of Luc that Pascale has relentlessly painted, and the boundaries within the household that Pascale has let fall, doubtless in part in an attempt to ingratiate herself with her sons at their father’s expense, but also in part because she cannot muster the sensible strength to do otherwise. The film opens with a scene that nonetheless takes one’s breath away because of its lack of two boundaries between mother and son—and outcome that is magnified by the quiet of the presentation that lets us know that what we are watching has played out in this household routinely. Self-absorbed, Pascale is trying on newly bought lingerie in her bedroom and looking into a mirror. She calls in François to ask him his opinion; he enters—his mother’s bedroom—as a matter of routine, though keeps himself by the door, and he has Pascale turn around, which she does at a mocking pace and with a smirk, in order to refute her claim that she is “fat,” an invitation for an inappropriate compliment from her son. (Pascale, incidentally, is Huppert-slender.) François is doing what a spouse might be called upon to do, and with even less expertise about women’s lingerie than a spouse might have. In effect, Pascale is asking François how sexy she looks. In addition to purging the scene of eroticism, her absorption with her mirror-image stresses how little thought she is giving to what she is doing, and we immediately get the sense that Pascale is well practiced in bending the boundaries between herself and at least one of her sons. In François, we see a late teenaged or twentysomething boy who is doing his best to please his mother, and with a genial degree of teasing meant to cover a trace of embarrassment. This is highly observant cinema that is packed with information about two of the three inhabitants of the household we are startlingly being introduced to.
The third member of the household is not long in coming. “What’s going on?” Thierry must be thinking; he must be feeling left out. (Pascale’s closer relationship is with François.) Thierry thus pops up at the doorway, and in an instant the twins are mock-fighting in the hallway, slapping each other’s backside—horseplay that impresses us doubly, reminding us how young the boys are (and, hence, underscoring how inappropriately Pascale has been behaving) and suggesting that their behavior is even less advanced than what we might expect from them. This entire opening passage is handled very lightly by Lafosse; but like so much else in the film, it comes back with a bite.
Seemingly off-handedly, Pascale mentions to her sons how inexpensive the lingerie were. This also is inappropriate information to share with them; but we are soon to discover that the household’s solvency is very much a bone of contention in this family. Pascale doesn’t make enough money at her job to be able to accommodate her sons’ needs, and she is forced to feel apologetic over any expenditure that addresses her separate needs. Especially Thierry is far more aggressive in his selfishness and self-absorption than his mother is in hers. Later he will castigate Pascale openly for exhausting her income, angrily bringing up the purchase of the lingerie, when she has no money to lend his brother. With a show of largesse, Thierry himself will lend François money—and I do mean lend, as François immediately promises to pay back the money, to which Thierry adds, “As usual.” Good brother!—but for only one thing: Thierry is lending François half of the money that their father had given him, Thierry, with the stipulation that half should go to François! Here, too, is a bent boundary, but bent in the opposite direction from which Pascale bends family boundaries, for Thierry is deceptively enacting the role of a lending institution vis-à-vis his brother. The comment “as usual” suggests he is not doing this here for the first time. Present during this exchange, Pascale is clueless to the implications. She is too defensive about her own finances to see how Thierry is taking mean advantage of her ex-husband’s efforts to alleviate the family’s poverty. In one fell swoop we see Pascale’s failing as a parent and Thierry’s failing as a brother, and we are able to draw a casual, possibly even a causal, connection between the two events.
Money is a bone of contention between ex-spouses. Immediately following the opening lingerie scene, Lafosse shows us the film’s first violent exchange. (It is in sharp contrast to the twins’ hallway horseplay.) Luc has come over to give the boys money, and Pascale goes ballistic. In part she is embarrassed that she cannot provide for their sons on her own. On the other hand, the position she stakes has nothing to do with Luc’s generosity; the grounds she claims for her frightening outburst is that Luc is conducting this “business” with the boys at her place. He is doing this in her house, she irrationally believes, in order to get her goat—and who knows? perhaps only the degree of Pascale’s response is irrational; perhaps there’s a small element of truth in the charge Pascale is making against Luc. This is the moment when we first learn that Pascale considers the family house hers. We later learn that Luc, contrarily, believes that the house, which he bought and paid for with his own hard-earned money, belongs instead to the boys. He feels he is being charitable by allowing Pascale to live there, although of course one of them has needed to take direct care of the boys. To Pascale, though, the house is her private property, period. Her red Jeep, the household’s primary vehicle (François has only recently acquired a motorbike that isn’t yet insured), is her other piece of “private property.” Pascale clings to such material ownership, we surmise, because she feels she has been dispossessed of her ability to live her own life. She has held onto her sons, perhaps, for much the same reason.
Now, however, she feels like letting them go. Perhaps for the first time in the ten years since the divorce, Pascale has a boyfriend, Jan, who is a neighbor. Together, they plan on starting their own business, a bed & breakfast, preliminary to which Pascale would sell the house. Pascale is loath to tell Thierry and François even that she has a boyfriend, and she dissembles about this, explaining that Jan’s attentions—he has baked a cherry pie for her—is only repayment for her loan to him of the family lawnmower. The boys laugh off that suggestion and help munch down the pie. Earlier, at one of the family meals that punctuate the narrative, Pascale gingerly broaches the subject of changes she has in mind: “I think I’m going to quit my job,” she tentatively announces, adding, “I could start a restaurant.” François is supportive; Thierry, derisive. But Thierry becomes angry—though not so angry as we will later see him—at Pascale’s next trial balloon: “I could sell the house.” Making little headway with the boys, Pascale presses Jan into service on the matter. At dinner (which he has prepared, proving himself a good cook), he extends the bounds of his role as guest by lecturing the boys about their mother’s past sacrifices and her current desire to tend to her own life for a change. The boys, especially Thierry, react badly, and Jan understands that he has crossed a line, explaining to Pascale alone outdoors as he leaves that he had a stepfather and knows what that’s like and all this really is none of his business—what in fact an explosive Thierry had said at table. Pascale, who has consigned Jan to a role that bent or blurred the normal description of dinner guest, will have to sort things out with her boys herself.
There are other scenes as well of these bent or blurred boundaries in Pascale’s household. One early on is a quiet shocker. (For a film that includes a good many violent quarrels, Private Property is admirably quiet overall.) Facing the bathroom mirror and us, Thierry is brushing his teeth. Behind him, and therefore in the gaze of the mirror into which Thierry is staring, his mother, naked, outside any enclosure, bathes herself upright. Never has a boy taken so long to brush his teeth! Surely his mother is aware of the object of attention and fascination she has thus turned herself into for her son; but she seems unperturbed—a sign that such bathroom doublings-up are routine in this household.
Indeed, there is another such scene in the film, another quiet shocker. The two big boys share a bath. Seated, facing one another in the tub, they shampoo each other’s hair while conversing. We end up gazing at them, mesmerized, in much the same way that Thierry gazed at the mirror-image of his naked mother earlier. Like that earlier moment or two, this remarkable, fairly extensive passage is bereft of even the slightest tinge of eroticism. For us it is a moment of fascination (made all the more so by the fact that the boys are played by real-life brothers Jérémie and Yannick Renier, with Jérémie giving a riveting performance as Thierry), much as the earlier scene recorded Thierry’s fascination with the image of his naked mother rather than showing his being in the slightest degree “turned on” by it. The impression with which we are left is that the twins have grown accustomed to sharing a bath and do this as a matter of routine. It is their time together, and something tells me that Mother is barred from the bathroom on these occasions. We alone have gained entry, and the boys, deep into their fraternal communion, are oblivious to our presence. But precisely because of this presence of ours, we suddenly feel implicated to an extraordinary degree in the fates of both boys—or, rather, as we might have predicted when these fates unfurl, their intertwined or joint fate.
The twins are shown together in a number of activities: playing a video game, watching television, playing ping-pong, shooting goodness knows what in and adjacent to the pond near their home. When one of the boys takes aim at something in the pond, it may be a fish that he is attempting to shoot; but an alternative possibility exists. He might be shooting his own reflection—or his brother’s. No point-of-view camera shot resolves the matter. Lafosse keeps himself and us outside the boys, contemplating them with fascination. It is as if there are secrets that these and other twins share that nobody else, not even their parents, are privy to.
Thierry’s rage intensifies at the prospect that Pascale might sell the house that the boy considers his and his brother’s. Rightly or wrongly, Luc confirms the justice of Thierry’s rage; he bought the house, and he gets to decide to whom it belongs, and he always intended it to be the boys’ property. One wonders, however, what the divorce settlement says. Since Pascale is living there and has raised her sons there, one imagines that the house is, as she believes, hers. In any case, defensive against a demeaning sense that she is “owned” by others (boss, ex, the twins), she is buoyed by the sense that she owns what property she claims for herself, in particular, the house and her car. But Thierry’s forceful opposition, coupled with Jan’s withdrawal of support leaving her precariously alone, presses Pascale into deciding not to sell the house. To her mind, this decision is tantamount to a more painful abdication than we might imagine; in effect, it is a declaration of defeat. She no longer feels she can consider the house her own. When combat erupts between the boys over use of her car, she is catapulted into a sense of becoming totally dispossessed, which exacerbates the ontological crisis of a woman in a society where money and, to a certain extent, being male fix value. What little she has of a voice she finds herself losing.
It becomes untenable for Pascale to remain in that house. She packs up and leaves, to stay with a friend. She asks Luc to take care of the boys; but Luc has another life now and can only tell his ex-wife that the boys know where he lives and can come see him at any time. On the one hand, this is a reasonable response; on the other, it is unreasonable because Pascale isn’t stepping back from the plate on a whim. Her mental survival is probably at stake, and Thierry and François are both their children. One can argue (as is noted a couple of times in the film) that the boys are old enough to take care of themselves; but canceling this argument is the fact that they aren’t so well equipped to do this as a result of the divorce and the parental (mis)guidance that both parents have provided. Luc’s coming to the door with his new child in his arms advertises his “new life” apart from Pascale and the boys; but it underscores something else as well: the extent to which Luc is using this “new life” as a cowardly, irresponsible excuse for not embracing and fulfilling prior family responsibilities.
In Pascale’s absence, Thierry, bless him, starts doing housework and even prepares a dinner for himself, his girlfriend, Anne, and François. He also takes over his mother’s considerably larger bedroom—or at least we infer that he does this, because now he naps in her (and, at one time, his father’s) large bed—my eye is insufficiently acute to determine whether the bed is queen-sized or king-sized—rather than in his own single bed. Something needs to be said about Pascale’s bed in contrast to other beds that are shown in the film. The headboard is flush against the wall, and there is considerable empty space, because of the size of the room, on all three other sides. Due to limited space, Thierry’s and Anne’s bedroom beds are inserted into corners, with both headboards and one length up against walls. (Or is it the same bed in the same room at two different times to which I am referring?) The image is cramped; and when Anne and Thierry make love in a single bed, the activity itself seems cramped, especially since Lafosse crops the image by cutting off the lovers’ feet. (Lafosse intensifies the fraternal communion between bathing brothers by not having the bathtub fill the length of the screen.) Ironically, while sex is easily consummated in a single bed, Thierry has difficulties consummating it in his mother’s bed. Thus when he sits up on the side of the bed as Anne consoles him, with the camera facing him, the open space around him becomes sorely ironic, negating the impression of freedom, and connects with the regressive image of Thierry when he appears in a modified fetal position while napping in this bed. One can say that Thierry misses having his mother there to do every little thing for him; but I interpret the matter a little differently. Thierry has taken over his mother’s bed as a way of staking (psychologically) a territorial claim. However poorly Pascale has structured her son’s life, Thierry misses her—her, and the boundaries, as minimal and meager as they might have been, that she provided. In his mother’s bed, Thierry misses his mother too keenly to make love successfully with Anne. This outcome implies a bogus motivational mechanism for such territorial claims as Thierry has made with the bed, and this reflects on the son’s ferocious battle with the mother (and vice versa) over the house. The insistence on property ownership actually points to those familial and emotional ties that the combat ostensibly seeks to dissolve. Even as violence sets blood to flowing, blood runs deeper than the desire for property; rather, emotional cripples such as, in particular, Pascale and Thierry do not know how to achieve a harmonious balance between family and individual identity, and they grab at property ownership—taking from someone else in the family something they claim as their own—as a misguided means of resolving the issue. Why people do things in this household isn’t always within their conscious grasp.
It is perhaps the case that Thierry defends himself against the absence of boundaries in his home life in a convoluted and circuitous way, by assaulting those boundaries that seem to exist in order to prohibit and curtail his sense of freedom and self-determination. One protest is buried inside another, making it invisible. When he erupts, he calls Pascale a “bitch”; his brother’s appearance in the living room causes Thierry to go too far while making out with Anne, upright, on the couch, precipitating her annoyed departure—a humiliation in front of his twin. An impulse to control a situation becomes in Thierry’s immature procedures a pathway to losing control. Immediately after Anne’s exit and Thierry’s unsuccessful attempt to effect her return, François teases Thierry, chastising him; and however convoluted this may sound, I wonder whether his doing so is François’s clumsy attempt to provoke a rise from Thierry so that Thierry may feel in command again. (A brother is perfectly capable of doing this for a brother.) Or, François may be simply staking his own claim to command, in the face of an oppressive, overbearing brother. In any case, the “rise” that François provokes proves monumental, and the two end up fighting viciously—grabbing, punching, wrestling. We have seen the boys physically fight earlier, at first playfully, and then over François’s motorbike and the family car more and more seriously. We do not expect the sudden outcome: François, unconscious, on the floor. An echo of the end of Chabrol’s Les cousins (1959) here in particular kicks in.
Thierry cannot face what he has done. He phones his father, but he doesn’t stick around, hiding behind a tree as the ambulence pulls up. At hospital, offscreen, Pascale and Luc are simply told to go home as François remains in a coma. At the house, the two ex-spouses participate in a rare joint act: they pick up glass that had been shattered during the Thierry- François brawl. No hack, Lafosse understands that the plot doesn’t need to be packaged and addressed; we never find out what happens to either twin. But the film’s brilliant, passionate final movement moves to the center of our consciousness the two twin examples of “private property”: house; car. Static shots show the house to be empty; at least one of these is sufficiently tight as to be claustrophobic and ironic: the freed space, as a result of the removed clutter of things, doesn’t create space; it only underscores the absence of people, because there are no inhabitants left to occupy the space. It’s an adaptation of the falling tree-in-a-humanless forest-thing. Now the camera is outside for the closing in-motion shot: a view of the house and subsequent sights as Pascale’s car, by moving forward, creates more and more space in between car and house. We do not see the car or its driver; it is a car’s-eye view shot, from the rear of the car. The juxtaposition of empty house and (to our eye) empty car resolves the insistence of claims on private property into meaninglessness; Pascale is herself completely empty now that she has lost her sons, one to death at the hands of his brother, the other either to suicide or to prison. We, then, complete the plot, and our participation in this narrative outcome helps us feel the emptiness that Pascale must feel as she pulls away from her past and her future and enters the nothingness of irreversible bereavement. The traveling shot is seemingly endless; it is endless, without any point of rest ahead. Instead of bringing the movement to a halt, Lafosse fades out on the movement-in-progress. Here is one of the most devastating shots in cinema.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.