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Families and 'Private Property'

Terrifying bonds exist between a mother and her sons in this fearlessly performed French-language film with Isabelle Huppert.

August 31, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

There are no horrors like family horrors. The nightmares hidden in the everyday are more frightening than any extreme situation, and the real horror films take place in cozy family kitchens, not deserted motels. Witness the powerful emotional impact of "Private Property," the devastating new film starring Isabelle Huppert.

An impeccably acted character drama revolving around a mother and her teenage twin sons, "Private Property" shows how strong and how terrifying the bonds within families can be. Directed by Belgium's Joachim Lafosse, it etches the line between love and hate with a savagery that is almost unprecedented.

Though part of the story, written by Lafosse and Francois Pirot, revolves around the potential sale of a family home, the title of "Private Property" also refers to the way people often feel they have ownership over other individuals, especially family members. It's not for nothing that the film starts with the dedication, "To our boundaries."

Though Huppert was apparently a late addition to the cast, "Private Property" allows her to play one of her trademark characters, a headstrong woman in an extreme situation. It also allows her to play opposite one of the few young French-speaking actors who can match her in forcefulness. That would be Jérémie Renier, exceptional in his films for the Dardennes brothers, "La Promesse" and "L'Enfant." In "Private Property," Renier and his real-life brother Yannick, also an actor, play the teenage twins, Thierry and Francois, who live with their divorced mother, Pascale (Huppert), in an old farmhouse outside an unnamed town in Belgium.

Though the divorce is 10 years in the past, Pascale is still furious with her ex-husband, exhibiting a ferocious temper if he comes around the house uninvited. With her casually commanding presence and trademark intensity, Huppert, arguably the great French screen actress of her generation, plays this role with passion to spare.

As to Thierry and Francois, they are a pair of aimless, unapologetic, self-centered louts, crude and oafish with no notion of responsibility. Both of them, though especially Thierry, clearly feel possessive of their mother, teasing her unmercifully while offering the weak excuse "we're just kidding."

Pascale, besides her temper, doesn't really communicate truthfully with her sons. She has a relationship with a neighbor named Jan (Kris Cuppens) that she takes pains to keep secret, and no one in this family seems to feel that honesty is any kind of a virtue. Though these relationships all seem potentially toxic when "Private Property" begins, it's when Pascale gets the idea of possibly selling the house that things come to a head and a nightmare begins to unfold.

Two elements are key to "Private Property's" success. One is the fearless conviction that the entire cast, especially Huppert and Jérémie Renier (who has considerable experience with amoral roles) bring to their parts. Though the characters they play are strangers to discipline, the actors could not be more in control.

Also critical is the impeccable objectivity that director Lafosse brings to the proceedings. Determined to be an unflinching, unblinking observer, he keeps his camera unmoving and at a distance, almost never moving in for close-ups. But the more Lafosse keeps us at a remove from the action, the more overwhelming this story becomes.


MPAA rating: unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In French with English subtitles. At Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Laemmle One Colorado in Pasadena.

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