for this week’s Tribune : Ursula Meier’s HOME [6/10]
Director: Ursula Meier
It's a minor linguistic oddity that there's no single word for "home" in the French language. Chez moi and chez-soi don't quite cut it, nor domicile – nor maison, although the French for a pet animal is, of course, "un animal a la maison" (or sometimes animal domestique.) And so it's clearly no accident that the movie Home, despite all its dialogue being in French, has no "original" title: Home, in this case, is simply Home. Given director/co-writer Ursula Meier's unusually pan-European background, this doesn't come as a surprise.
Born in France to a German-Swiss (Protestant) father and a (Catholic) French mother, raised in France and a part of Switzerland – the Pays de Gex – that has long been disputed territory between the two countries, and now based mainly in Brussels (with spells in Paris and Geneva), Meier describes her childhood home as "a kind of no man's land, not really France, not really Switzerland. We crossed the border several times a day, which created a very strange relationship with the space we inhabited."
The influence of this "strange" upbringing suffuses Home, in which a family goes about their daily business in a weird kind of self-induced semi-isolation. For several years – perhaps a decade or more – they have lived in a detached house on the side of an unfinished motorway: the E57, which in reality connects Austria and Slovenia, but which here exists in an odd Franco-American limbo (the movie, which must have been a logistical cauchemar to film, was actually shot in Bulgaria.)
Squatters of a rather bourgeois kind, mentally-fragile mother Marthe (Isabelle Huppert) and easygoing, garage-employee dad Michel (Olivier Gourmet) have raised their three kids in this unorthodox environment – handily, there's a school within walking distance – and all goes swimmingly until labourers turn up to complete the highway after a ten-year hiatus. The family now must contend with multiple lanes of traffic zooming by quite literally on their doorstep – and it doesn't take long for frictions to escalate and various family members to start losing their grip on reality…
Home starts off as a delightfully quirky jeu d'esprit – a bit like a live-action version of The Simpsons, with a Michel Gondry kind of deadpan off-handedness that makes a semi-surreal premise seem plausible and beguiling. As Meier develops her themes, we seem to be heading towards a beautifully banal intersection of the Ballardian and the Bunuelian, as the impersonal machinery of the modern state rubs up against the messy specifics of flesh-and-blood, idiosyncratic individuals determined to muddle through as best they can.
But at some point Meier's road-map goes astray, and the narrative takes a more serious turn – the "little house on the prairie" becoming a squalid, fetid hovel as the family turn inward to escape the incessant noise and fumes, succumbing to their psychoses and neuroses in the process. And while the final sequence – set to Nina Simone's irresistible 'Wild is the wind' – goes some way to getting the vehicle back on track, by this stage the picture has pretty much bogged down into the tricky terrain of excessively metaphorical social-psychological parable.
Meier – whose big-screen feature debut this is – had similar third-act problems with her last project, teen-athlete TV-movie Strong Shoulders (2002), and on Home they're compounded by the creative team with which she's surrounded herself. There's no faulting the actors, even if Meier seems a little too besotted with Huppert's distrait regality, and likewise Claire Denis' regular cinematographer Agnes Godard delivers a masterclass in the two-dimensional evocation of three-dimensional space and light.
But the presence of no less than three editors sounds a warning bell – amplified by the fact that Meier worked with five writers on the script (Antoine Jaccoud, Olivier Lorelle, Gilles Taurand, Raphaelle Valbrune and Alice Winocour.) As director, Meier is clearly in charge of where her film is heading – but it would seem that she's been ill-advised by her posse of backseat drivers, with ultimately frustrating results: un cul-de-sac, as they say in France, Belgium and certain parts of Switzerland.