Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Home (2008)

by on October 11, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Tue Oct 18 at 12:30, 4:00, 7:30 at FIAF [Program & Tix]

 
The Beau Travail of Agnès Godard,” the well-deserved celebration of the renowned cinematographer, continues every Tuesday at the French Alliance through the end of October.

 

Use Alt Screen as your dependable source for critic review collation – as Rotten Tomatoes has bizarrely confused Ursula Meier’s film with both an environmental documentary narrated by Glenn Close and an Amish-country indie starring Marcia Gay Harden!

 

It’s awful hard to resist a trailer with a well-deployed Nina Simone song:

 

Andrew Schenker for the Village Voice:

The opening scenes of Home—a nighttime game of street hockey, a bathing session that turns into a five-way splash fight—establish the anarchic sense of play that defines the interactions of the film’s central family, while the casual nudity on display hints at the vaguely incestuous tensions in this uniquely insular clan. The rest of Ursula Meier’s confident, appealingly bizarre theatrical debut subjects these tensions to the hothouse environment of a self-willed isolation. When the five members of the central family find their remote domestic paradise invaded by the reopening of the abandoned highway adjacent to their house, they resort to increasingly lunatic measures to block out the noise—it’s but a small step from earplugs to bricking up their house entirely. Eventually, paranoia and open hostility set in as a family defined from the start by too great a sense of closeness is forced into even closer proximity. Working with all-star DP Agnès Godard, Meier effectively communicates the sense of upended privacy, moving easily from the nighttime intrusion of brightly clad construction workers (the eye-straining oranges and yellows of their uniforms registering as a truly alien presence) to the incongruous sight of Isabelle Huppert tending her garden as blurry streaks of traffic zip by.

 

 
Fernando F. Croce for Slant:

Described by director Ursula Meier as “a road movie in reverse,” Home is an assured and unsettling comedy. Marthe (Isabelle Huppert) and Michel (Olivier Gourmet) lead a happily isolated life with their kids on the edge of an abandoned highway. Relishing their distance from the rest of society, the clan stage makeshift hockey matches, sunbathe in deckchairs near the road, and hold au fresco picnics in their extended backyard. With two veterans from Michael Haneke’s squirm-o-ramas playing the parents, however, it’s only a matter of time for the secluded idyll to be disrupted, contaminated, and dismantled. When the highway is reopened, the onslaught of cars zipping noisily by their house suggests a swarm of giant insects invading a garden. The family fabric crumbles: Marthe can’t fall asleep anymore, teenage daughter Marion (Madeleine Budd) becomes obsessed with the toxins released by the machines, and young Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) goes from seeing adventure in the changes to succumbing to apathy.

 

Clammy provocation and surreal fable, Meier’s film is predicated on thematic and sensory contrasts: nature and civilization, tranquil landscapes and roaring vehicles, sun-dappled spaciousness and barricaded claustrophobia. Sensitive to the smallest shifts in light, Agnès Godard’s cinematography is also alert to widescreen visual gags, so that when sullen, bikini-clad daughter Julie (Adélaide Leroux) lounges before a honking traffic jam, the scene seems lifted straight out of Jacques Tati’s Trafic. However, as Huppert’s trademark ferociousness starts burning through Marthe’s kooky-housewife façade and the family literally entombs itself away from the outside world by bricking up their house, Meier reveals cracks in their domestic life that weren’t so much created as heightened by the intrusion of mechanized progress. Increasingly bizarre and despairing in its images of breakdown and rebirth, Home is finally hopeful in its view of familial bonds holding together as the characters are forced to face the far from idealized world they are inescapably a part of.

 

 

Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Something will have to give, and it does, as the movie grows more and more dark. It’s the skill of Ursula Meier, the director and co-writer, to bring us to those fraught passages by rational stages. What happens would not make sense in many households, but in this one, it represents a certain continuity, and confirms deep currents we sensed almost from the first.

 

Do you remember Olivier Gourmet from his performance in the Dardenne brothers’ “The Son” (2003)? Balding, middle-aged, nimble and quick. Many secrets. Troubled. Isabelle Huppert, you know since forever. Usually looking fundamentally the same, always assuming a new character from the inside out. Intriguing us. There’s thought in that face, but it’s inscrutable. They work with the young actors here to face what it means when a home is not a house.

 

Mike D’Angelo on his blog:

Meier is now officially one of world cinema’s best-kept secrets. And yet as much as I loved her little-seen debut, Strong Shoulders, about a teenaged girl dangerously obsessed with track and field—you’ll find it clinging to the bottom of my 2003 top ten list—that film’s blunt, coarse naturalism in no way prepared me for the bughouse absurdism of Home, which transplants the typical French-language domestic drama into a live-action version of Frogger. Basic premise is simple: Eccentric family lives in boondocks alongside unfinished stretch of highway; highway finally opens; all hell breaks loose. But Meier finds in this apparent one-joke idea both an inexhaustible source of comic invention—the blasé insanity here sometimes rivals Charlie Kaufman at his best—and a Big Obvious Metaphor that turns out to be much thornier than it initially appears. (For best results, think house = country and cars= foreigners, although judging from her remarks in the press kit it seems as if that notion never even occurred to Meier. Doesn’t matter; the film still works beautifully as xenophobic critique.) Casting Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet as mère and père was particularly inspired, as both are savvy enough to play against the ludicrousness of the material, and also automatically disarm via years of accumulated serious-art-film baggage. Finale admittedly gets a tad overemphatic, but then there wasn’t any other direction to take it, really, so I’m apt to be indulgent. And while Strong Shoulders wasn’t especially impressive from a formal standpoint, Meier directs the hell out of this one, mining what’s essentially a single location for one perfectly composed shot after another. Nutty, inspired and cutting…but also utterly abstract, which inevitably means that the humanism-lovin’ gatekeepers don’t give a shit. Their loss.

 

 

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:

You might as well be looking at the last people on earth. In some ways you are, though signs of other life occasionally pass by, including a cluster of Julien’s friends, who roam around the area on bicycles as if on patrol. Julien and Marion attend school, but like their father, they journey to the larger world, it doesn’t swing by for visits. No one in the family seems to mind, least of all Marthe, who bustles about doing housework with a vague smile, or Judith, who passes the time in a bikini, indolently baking under the sun. This family, which plays together and somewhat disconcertingly even bathes together (only Marion shuns the communal ablutions), has made its own universe, its own reality too.

 
Ms. Meier puts her characters into play so casually, with no signs of strain, that what happens in “Home” remains surprising and pleasurable, even when the story goes dark, then darker. Both the natural-sounding dialogue and Agnès Godard’s camerawork seem to generate from the characters organically, which keeps them fully human. (The family isn’t the only group effort: Ms. Meier wrote the screenplay with Antoine Jaccoud, Raphaëlle Valbrune, Gilles Taurand and Olivier Lorelle, perhaps to catch the rhythms of five voices.) For all their idiosyncrasies, Marthe, Michel and the rest of the clan never descend into caricature. That’s partly because of the very fine actors — with Ms. Huppert and Mr. Gourmet being finer than the rest — but also because the talented Ms. Meier has a particularly generous appreciation for the human comedy.

 

Edward Champion talks with Meier. Click here to listen.

 

 

Matheiu Loewer interviews Meier for Cineuropa:

How would you define the genre of your film?
I think it is a quite particular film. I wanted to mix tones and genres, jumping from a dramatic scene to another one that’s a bit more burlesque. I kept in mind both Tati and Pilat. The way I filmed it also followed that concept: We start with the hand-held camera and finish with fixed shots. There is only movement in the last shot, seen from the road perspective. We therefore catch up with the genesis of Home: from a car, I had seen houses on the verge of the highway and I told myself it would be interesting to reverse that look. Actually, Home is a road movie in reverse.

 

And how would you define its moral?
It is a contemporary family tale; it is about isolation turning into madness. There are quite strong intimate ties between the characters, which will be revealed by the highway. It becomes the place where each one of the characters projects their own neurosis. It is also a mirror of the world – violent, aggressive, and polluted – which enters the homes of people who thought they would be able to live alone, set apart from society. In this sense, it is a film about Switzerland.

 

Adam Nayman for Fandor:

Home would make a nifty double bill with Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf (2003), and not only because it retains the services of such formidable performers as Huppert and Gourmet. Whereas Haneke’s characteristically down-in-the-mouth drama imagines a world where human decency has eroded in the absence of civilized society, Meier’s elegantly measured comedy flips the equation: modern civilization itself becomes a slowly encroaching menace.
There’s a fairly obvious theme here about contamination, and yet Home isn’t easily tossed off as a thesis film. For one thing, the actors inhabit their roles in a way that takes them beyond types. For Huppert, there’s a line to be drawn through her work here and in Claire Denis‘ White Material (2009): in both films she plays women who steadfastly refuse to abandon the homes they’ve worked to build even when it’s clear they no longer belong. There’s also a specificity to the cinematography by the ever-brilliant Agnes Godard, which clearly inscribes the house and the surrounding areas as a metaphorical space while also lavishing attention on small, tactile bits of domestic detritus — an oddly installed satellite dish and a forlorn charcoal grill. It’s the attention to such small details that keeps this prickly, peculiar film from getting too conceptual for its own good.

 

 

Wally Hammond for Time Out (London):

Offering intriguing echoes of the dystopian visions of JG Ballard (‘Crash’) and the acerbic, anarchic satires of Jean-Luc Godard (‘Weekend’) and Claude Faraldo (‘Themroc’), debut French director Ursula Meier’s intended fable works best in the quietly surreal and gently farcical first half, where both the well-judged, undemonstrative performances and Agnès Godard’s patiently observational camera build a sufficiently absorbing portrait of idiosyncratic family ritual and individualised relationships. The sudden gear change into neurosis and incipient madness, however, comes as a badly handled shock, loosening our interest in character and proffering, instead, mere metaphorical readings – about the effects of change, possibly, or modernity? We’re unprepared for this vague and obscure detour. That said, it’s a first film of laudable ambition and Meier’s directorial confidence suggests promise for the future.

 

Hammond also speaks with Huppert:

Ursula Meier’s ‘Home’ is about a family who live an isolated but happy existence beside a disused motorway, but fall apart when the road opens. How did you come to get involved with this unusual project?
‘I was given the script when I was in Belgium making Joachim Lafosse’s “Private Property”. Joachim talked to me very positively about it and suggested very strongly that I should do it. It was a good connection and a very good approach. I found the script was very special, very detailed. It was never psychological, but it expressed what the movie would turn out to be.

 

What was the challenge in ‘Home’?
‘What is different about “Home” is that it plays on several different levels. It’s not psychological, it’s more like a fable, you know. It’s not just realistic, but also surrealistic. And the characters in the film are like archetypes. The mother, the father and the three children – it’s like an example of any family in the world. It’s not just a portrait of a family in this particular situation.

 

Marthe, the mother, feels she’s in a paradise. But when the outside world makes itself felt, she feels that if she leaves, she will have to confront things that she doesn’t want to confront. Her situation seems protective but, in fact, it’s more like a prison. What’s great about ‘Home’ is that it is always taking definitions like that – the idea of paradise – and redefining them as something else – in this case a prison.’

 

 

Kazu Watanabe for the FSLC blog:

In an emblematic scene in Home Marthe (the mother, played by Isabelle Huppert) wants to give snacks to two of her children, Julien and Marion, who stand across the newly-constructed highway from her after arriving home from school. With the encouragement of her children she decides to pitch the bag of food over the highway. The bag lands on the edge of the road and they erupt in cheer. Just as Julien tries to make a grab for it a car suddenly runs over the bag in a small burst of cheese and bread, much to everyone’s surprise. This scene highlights the warm love shared between the family, especially from the mother, as well as their unique, spontaneous approach to problem solving (that warrants a laugh and a cheer). At the same time, however, there is a rather dark quality to it in the way destruction can come suddenly — the obstacle of the highway is at first a comic problem, but it very quickly becomes a life-threatening one. This dichotomy of humor and dark drama comes to define Meier’s film, a subtle mix of emotional tones that is at once exhilarating and unnerving.

 

The central question Meier seems to be asking is: “What constitutes a home?” At first it is the house itself, the location (the middle of nowhere?) that allows the family freedom. As the house becomes destroyed, however, it becomes clear that home is something else (love? family? sanity?), though Meier never makes that something else explicit. Ultimately, Home forces us to ask: What are those things which keep us together, that make us feel secure, and (most importantly) what do we do when a highway is built right on top of them?

 

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