I’ve returned to my little Huppert obsession (this seems to be the time of year when Amazon clears out its world cinema DVDs). I can see I have my work cut out keeping up with her career after starting so late on it (she is the same age as me, which is a bit of a surprise, but then I was asked yesterday, as a security question for some institution or other, how old I would be next birthday, and I have to tell you, I didn’t believe it. No wonder my beard is white).
Private Property, directed and co-written by Joachim Lafousse, must be one of her best films. Unless I have stumbled across an errant batch of her movies, Huppert is generally called upon to play women who are possessed of extraordinary stillness, either because they are depressed, psychotic, or phlegmatic. Or maybe that’s just the way she plays them all. But her enigmatic presence is always highly articulate, which is to say, the less she speaks, the more she seems to express: the mark of a very fine actor (only Eastwood and Jeff Bridges and perhaps Jodie Foster have it, of the American stars). This is also an excellent film, intimate, and also intense.
Huppert plays Pascale, who has brought her twin sons up after a divorce, and who has a slightly uninhibited realtionship with them – nothing major, but close enough for instance to take a shower in their presence without any batting of eyelids. It becomes clear that the boys – played by actors who are brothers, incidentally – are slightly spoiled, emotionally by Pascale, and financially by their father. Pascale has a secret lover, Jan, and wants to sell her house. The revelation of this brings out the worst in one of the brothers, but also pits the brothers against each other and their mother. The consequences of this hostility are sudden and disturbing, and the film does not attempt to give us a tidy resolution.
What I like about this film is that the narrative is apparently slight, but has a force that verges on the emotional – achieved (as it always is), by the actors under-playing their roles. And no-one under-plays like the loudly impassive Huppert. Every movement she makes is casual, believable, and also, one suspects, the effect of long consideration. If there is a problem with Private Property, it is that Huppert acts everyone else off the screen.
That the film deals with a closed circle, and uses a small cast, is also a strength. We get to know them well. the father is a bit too obviously worried that his sons will neglect him. The sons are as similar as they are different, ganging up against the world as well as fighting each other. They are both slightly unpleasant at times but also vulnerable, and, as in the mother-child relationship, oddly close (bathing together at the age of eighteen, for isntance). None of the characters is allowed to be completely sympathetic. Huppert is quite brilliant at both attracting and repelling sympathy, at confusing the viewer by remaining almost completely emotionless in a way that suggests powerful emotion. It’s her film, in the end. You feel it wouldn’t have worked quite so well without her.
The ‘ownership’ or property of the title refers more directly in the French to the ownership of the house being passed from father to sons, and the title therefore has more resonance than in English. But everyone in this film has a slice of everyone else: that is its skill.