Home (2008)

Home first published by Film4

Summary: Ursula Meier’s feature debut is a surreal drama depicting a family frozen to the spot by the oncoming headlights of progress. 

Review: The open highway stretches to the horizon in both directions, promising all the freedom, and all the narrative mobility, of a road movie. Yet with her big-screen feature debut Home, Ursula Meier has used such a setting to construct what she describes as “a road movie in reverse”, where the main characters, far from moving on, recede further and further into themselves as they struggle to accommodate the ever-changing world of the road beyond to the fragile security and stasis of their domestic situation. The seductive, apocalyptic menace of Meier’s tarred speedlanes could have come straight out of a J.G. Ballard novel, while the precarious nature of a family’s homelife recalls the nightmare of Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995).    

Even though Marthe (Isabelle Huppert), Michel (Olivier Gourmet) and their three children live in an isolated house alongside a multi-lane autoroute, they are, like the film that features them, way off the beaten track. For while the highway was more or less completed ten years ago, it never actually opened, and so this family has let its domestic space spill out onto the empty tarmac beyond – a bitumen playground where they spend balmy evenings together larking about, playing roller hockey or just sitting on an al fresco sofa listening to nothing but the sounds of their own existence. 

Weekdays a separate dirt road is used by Dad to go to work, by a garbage truck to collect the family’s refuse, and by a schoolbus to pick up the two younger children before later bringing them home once again – but beyond that there is little contact with the outside world, and Mum and eldest daughter Judith (Adélaïde Leroux) seem never to leave the immediate environs of the home. It is, or at least appears to be, an idyllic country life, insulated from the hustle and bustle of other people. 

But then, as the summer vacation begins and they must all face more time than usual in one another’s company, the road is opened with little warning, exposing all the family’s inner tensions to an endless, noisy stream of traffic. Judith, whose catchphrase is “I don’t care”, defiantly continues sunbathing outside, for the first time having a parade of passing spectators to whom she can display her rebellious insolence and bikini’d body. It is clear she will be first to leave the fold. 

Middle sister Marion (Madelaine Budd), already anxious about her adolescent body, fixates upon the polluting diseases that so many cars could inflict on a vulnerable physiology, and draws impressionable young Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) into her obsessive games. Nervous Marthe, who, it is implied, has a history of mental fragility, stops sleeping altogether and seeks to shut herself off more and more from the fleeting humanity at their doorstep. Meanwhile, after failing to convince the rest to leave with him, claustrophobic Michel sets about turning their home into a suffocating parody of what it once was, as he gives in to the domestic madness that is in part his own.       

At the beginning Home seems rooted in almost documentary-style  naturalism, as Meier plays fly-on-the-wall (or cat-on-the-road) to the intimate specifics of this family’s structure, with Agnès Godard’s cool camerawork keeping everything and everyone at a studied distance. Soon, however, the film is travelling a more allegorical by-way, mapped out in surrealism and psychosis. As the family negotiates the median strip between private and public, it risks losing its own vitality and coherence, but in ignoring, resisting or excluding the change that the opened highway offers, it also risks choking on its own insularity. 

No wonder, then, that Meier has suggested that Home is in part a film about Switzerland, a state notorious for cutting itself off from the European project at its borders – but Home also serves to dramatise the attractions and dangers of modernity itself, in all its sound, fury and hyperactive inability to stand still. Marthe and her family, superbly realised by the cast, stand for anyone who has faced being left behind and passed over, whether by municipal planning, a shift in the geopolitical landscape, or the information superhighway. It is a rare and rewarding thing to see such people (and that’s all of us, at times) brought into sharp focus rather than merely glimpsed in a blur – and Meier’s increasingly unhinged vision is the very definition of unsettling.         

Verdict: In showing a family’s self-destructive intransigence (or is it self-preserving cohesion?), Ursula Meier unravels a modern fable in which the forces of conservatism and change pass each other by.

© Anton Bitel