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Private Property: Mother and Sons

All in the family (New Yorker Films)

All in the family (New Yorker Films)

Joachim Lafosse’s intermittently compelling family drama Private Property comes with a prim dedication to “our boundaries,” and it doesn’t take long to see that the domestic unit festering under the roof of a lovely old Belgian farmhouse has none to speak of. Enmeshed doesn’t begin to describe the sorry crew presided over, if that’s the term, by Pascale (Isabelle Huppert), a divorcée who compulsively pits her two grown sons against one another and submits to their verbal torture of her. The boys still live with Mom, who nonchalantly showers in the same room as tow-headed lummox Thierry (Jérémie Regnier, importing the oafish truculence he perfected in the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant), watches television in the arms of his dark-haired twin, François (Regnier’s brother, Yannick), and models trashy lingerie for her sons’ approval. When they’re not pounding away at video games, shooting rats in a local pond with BB guns or raining blows on one another like 6-year-olds, all in an unbroken register of desperate fury, the boys still bathe together, and furtively accept the cash pressed into their palms by a concerned but clueless father (Patrick Descamps), who thinks he’s moved on from this mess by remarrying and producing a new baby.

The effect of all this acting out is less erotic than helplessly childish. Private Property nails the fact that rotten parenting is more likely to produce incompetents than sociopaths, and Lafosse deftly registers every clumsy effort at escape by shooting in short, undefined scenes in which someone wanders out of frame, only to drift back in and further up the ante. When Pascale, who has taken a new lover (Kris Cuppens) with a more accurate bead on her shortcomings as a parent than she has, threatens to sell the house that has confined its inhabitants in an endless loop of helpless rage and fear, the simmering violence comes to a head.

Lafosse, who co-wrote (with François Pirot) the semiautobiographical script, is at pains to spread the wealth of infantile futility, but beneath his studied evenhandedness there’s no mistaking the feverish Freudianism — all too common, and all too unconscious, in male directors of family dramas — of his ambivalence toward Pascale. Huppert has played more than her share of haughty bitches, and at 54 she remains as careless of her durable beauty (with her, one never feels that dropping the makeup is a bid for Oscar) as she is precise about pugnaciously unilateral, yet fragile character. Waging war with their father over her sons’ befuddled heads, Pascale shamelessly plays favorites, but the key to her instinctive urge to manipulate and confuse comes in a brief scene — one of the few that occurs outside the home — in which she’s at once seductive, mocking and cruel to a baby boy when his mother’s back is turned. Pascale is the movie’s most defined character, and its most repugnant. Whatever sympathy we can muster for her boils down to Huppert’s richly layered portrayal. But really, I wanted to slap her, even — perhaps especially — at the eleventh hour, when Lafosse sucks the specificity out of his story and solicits our easy pity with the injection of a programmatic wake-up call that strands the hapless mother and her ex in the oldest metaphor in the book. We leave them literally picking up pieces, as a car-mounted camera wheels us away to the tune of a screechy violin — the movie’s first and only intimation that every unhappy family, with apologies to Tolstoy, makes malignant music in its own special way.

PRIVATE PROPERTY | Directed by JOACHIM LAFOSSE | Written by LAFOSSE and FRANÇOIS PIROT | Produced by JOSEPH ROUSCHOP | Released by New Yorker Films | Music Hall and One Colorado