“You can afford lingerie, but when your kids need money, you’re out.”
The Belgium film, Private Property, is a tale of a destroyed, dysfunctional family. Apart from the fact that there’s a divorce in the background, we don’t really know the details of exactly what happened in the past. When the film begins, Pascale (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her two adult sons, Thierry (Jeremie Renier) and Francois (Yannick Renier) in an old farmhouse. In many ways the three of them share an idyllic setting. The farmhouse is large, situated on a chunk of property, and there’s a river that runs nearby. Pascale’s ex husband lives nearby, and he’s remarried with a small child.
The first scene sets the tone for the film’s tense atmosphere, and it’s soon clear that the relationships between these three–Pascale and her two sons–are pathological. She takes showers in front of Thierry while he covertly eyes her nude reflection in the glass. Thierry and Francois, who are twins, bathe facing one another in the tub. This might have been alright when they were five, but now it’s downright peculiar. All they lack is a rubber duckie to make it complete. There’s a great deal of violence brewing beneath the surfaces of these relationships. Thierry, the dominant brother of the two, is belligerent, accusatory, insulting, and he treats both his mother and his brother very badly. Attached to his absent, disgruntled father, Thierry himself as some sort of surrogate, and he assumes the moral superiority of an indignant parent. He isn’t capable of a normal conversation with his mother. Francois, on the other hand, is quiet and kind to his mother, and he frequently intervenes between Pascale and Thierry. Pascale’s relationship with her sons is odd too. She more or less ignores Francois. Perhaps it’s because she can.
It’s clear that these three people share an unhealthy life, and this becomes even more obvious as the plot continues. Pascale’s ex feels perfectly free to waltz in and out of Pascale’s home and bedroom, ignoring the fact that he no longer has the right to do so. His soured relations with Pascale spill over onto his sons, and we see the corrosive results in Thierry’s explosive resentment.
Pascale drops a bombshell on her sons when she announces one day that she wants to sell the farmhouse and move away. It seems that she’s always wanted to open a bed and breakfast. She doesn’t tell her sons, however, that she has a relationship with the neighbour, and they’ve planned this project as part of their new life together. Thierry, who treats his mother like a bad child, doesn’t take her seriously, but when he sees that she’s moving forward with her plans, he reacts violently.
Unfortunately although the film has a very strong beginning, it fails to explore the fascinating darker aspects of the relationships. There’s so much here beneath the surface. Pascale argues that she has the right to a life of her own–she’s raised her sons and now it’s time to move on. There’s nothing wrong with that argument, but her sons are socially and emotionally immature. Pascale’s boyfriend argues that Thierry and Francois are men and should be out working. Well yes, he’s correct, but there’s a strange dependency between Pascale and her sons that’s never explored. The sons are isolated at the farmhouse and dependent on getting lifts from their mother in order to get to town. Both Thierry and Francois see Pascale as a resource, and neither one of them wants to let her go. Whereas Francois is pliant, Thierry tries to control his mother by bullying. While they act like bad children, there are hints that Pascale has hindered their maturity, and now that she wants to move on with her life, she would prefer them to grow up overnight. Why Pascale thinks it’s acceptable to shower in front of her adult son, for example, is never explored. Instead the film dissolves into cliches. The film nails so many aspects of the pathology of familial relationships, but then drops the subject half way, and instead we are left with the tantalizing, darker issues unexplored. In French with subtitles, Private Property is directed by Joachim Lafosse.