Watching a film like Private Property we might realise that the question to ask isn’t whether the film is realistic, but what is realistic in a film. This isn’t some attempt at playing with words, more an attempt at comprehending realism not as a formal expectation, but as a choice that can at any moment be eschewed for more pressing concerns, concerns which undermine the idea of realism but promote an indefinable aspect of it. The director, Joachim Lafosse, said that when he showed people the script they thought it had too many mealtime scenes, and maybe within the concept of general realism meals are somehow antithetical to a realist ethic for several reasons. One might be that realism concerns work rather than leisure; or if it doesn’t concern work it concerns the effort of finding it in its absence. Whether it is Loach’s Raining Stones or the Dardennes’ Rosetta, the films bring to mind a comment in Muriel Spark’s Reality and Dreams: “I believe it’s more exhausting looking for work than doing it.” Another would be that while the odd meal might be acceptable, meal after meal suggests a plenitude that we generally assume is missing from tales of realism, from narratives of worn-out lives. Is realism not much more about lack than fullness, much more about the material deprivation in one’s life as the narrative examines the ways in which people try and gain the basics ? Be it The Grapes of Wrath or Bicycle Thieves, central to our notion of realism is the nature of the goal in relation not so much to the desire as the need: is realism so often about tangible necessities, whether that be finding work or searching for a bike?
When Antonioni moved beyond neo-realism, central to this was finding a problematic that would not concern practical existence but instead an intellectual one. He was searching for characters, he would say, who “have a more refined sensibility, a more subtle sense of intuition through which I can filter the kind of reality I am interested in expressing.” “Furthermore”, he adds in an interview contained in the La Notte DVD notes, “the intellectual, more than others, is the type of person in which I can find the symptoms of that particular kind of crisis which I am interested in describing. If I take an insensitive type, a rough and rugged type, he wouldn’t have any of the particular problems I’m concerned with and the story would end right there.” Antonioni is here talking about a kind of ‘reality’ as opposed to realism, and so what we want to explore in Private Property is not realism, but its ‘kind of reality’, a kind of realism that means that while it falls loosely into the realm of realist filmmaking, there is at the same time a kind of reality hidden within the material.
This is of course not especially new in French cinema, where often realism has incorporated the middle class where in, say, British cinema, middle class representation has usually worked against realism, and lent itself to the period drama or the romantic comedy. When we think of realism in the British context, don’t we usually imagine Kitchen Sink films like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, This Sporting Life and Look Back in Anger as well of course of Ken Loach? And though it is true in many realist films – from A Room at the Top to Secrets and Lies – there are middle class aspects, it is the working class elements that give it its ‘realism’: the uncle and aunt’s house in A Room at the Top, Sylvia’s abode in Secrets and Lies.
But in French cinema whether it be Maurice Pialat’s brilliantly complex work in Loulou and A nos amours, Christian Vincent’s La Separation, or Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water, a term has been created that captures well this space for realist observation without the expectations of traditional realist cinema. Realism can serve the sensitive as readily as the rugged, the emotional as much as the practical. In intimiste drama class constraint seems less important than the issue of the expression of feeling. Now one way of understanding the middle-class intimiste drama of which Private Property is a fine example is to see how the house at its centre is shot. It isn’t until the very end of the film that we have the equivalent of the sort of establishing shot Merchant Ivory films would give us at the earliest possible opportunity. If in A Soldier’s Daughter Never Dies director James Ivory shows us a beautiful house in a lingering tracking shot before we’ve arrived, in Private Property we get a sense of the house’s grandeur and enormity only after we leave. It is what we see in the final shot of the film as the camera retreats from the house and travels along the road which leads to the property.
This is one of maybe three key shots in the film, and to understand what makes Private Property a work of reality rather than realism it might be useful to say what these three shots manage to give to the work. Here is a film about a divorced mother, whose ex-husband lives nearby with his new wife and child, while she lives in the house with her two kids – twins around twenty. As she does all the cooking and the housework, and as one son is unemployed and the other at college while she works, the film offers a fine grained study of one woman’s attempts to escape from the limitations of her life and the relative irresponsibility of the children. This isn’t only the sort of realist cinema we’ve discussed in relation to the UK; it also hints at all those films like Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine where a woman seeks self-emancipation.
Yet at the same time such comparisons are almost pointlessly facile; the film’s interest in Pascale’s (Isabelle Huppert) liberation is merely a problematizing aspect rather than the narrative resolution, for, as the film illustrates, this type of liberation can have a huge price, and when, as we’ll later discuss, does she really want to escape the claustrophobia she is partly creating? How can the film acknowledge that price without denying the need for freedom, and at the same time acknowledge that Pascale perhaps doesn’t want that freedom anyway? How can it capture the reality of the problem without relying on realism – without that realist trope of deterministic despair we often find in the realist film, and search out instead questions concerning responsibility and culpability, thus making the film not about problems in the world (as in much realist film), but about problems of the self à la Antonioni?
Here we can talk about the two other key shots, both of which take place late in the film. The first is a fixed frame image where the twins, Francois and Thierry (Yannick and Jeremie Renier), wrestle with each other in the sitting room during an argument and Francois’s left unconscious after falling onto and breaking a coffee table. Lafosse holds the shot as we realise, though we don’t see his face, that Francois is unconscious. All we see is the body, the legs still, as Thierry frets around the frame. Shortly afterwards, in another key shot, after Thierry’s phoned his father, we see Thierry a few hundred yards away from the house watching as the father’s car and later an ambulance arrives. Lafosse holds on the anxious Thierry, keeping his distance from the scene, as we watch a face for the first time in the film confronting culpability. There is a horrible irony in these two shots, because if for much of the film it shows Thierry refusing responsibility, here we see him moving towards the comprehension of responsibility’s further reaches: the culpable. If the responsible asks of us that we take charge of our own lives, as Thierry for much of the film shows that he cannot, then culpability resides in being responsible for another life also: for somehow robbing another of their freedom.
Throughout the film Thierry has refused to take responsibility, refused to help his mother out, often expected her to drive him to college, or to wash his clothes. In such moments he is no more than irresponsible, and yet there is more agency to his irresponsibility than there is to his culpability. If he shows himself to be lazy and selfish for much of the film in ways that he could easily not be lazy and selfish, then when he wrestles with his brother, and Francois careers into the coffee table and ends up unconscious, this is more readily in the realm of the accidental. As Lafosse holds the two shots – one a partial framing, the other a deep focus take – so we sense for the first time in the film the culpable over the responsible. In each instance these are shots that we would expect to be reframed: in the first case by a reverse track or a pan to give us more of the scene; in the second by a cut to the father pulling up to the house. By refusing to give us the privileged framing, Lafosse at the same time visualises culpability over responsibility. They are both great shots of meditative helplessness. They are not contributing to a deterministic narrative, but creating instead a space for plaintive observation, the sort of observation Antonioni so searched out and that filmmakers like Michael Haneke have picked up on.
This notion of culpability however is of course not quite the same thing as saying that they are shots from Thierry’s perspective. It is more that Lafosse makes us feel in these shots the sense of the culpable, and Thierry’s the character in whom this culpability resides. But what about the final shot, where it could be any or none of the members of the family’s point of view? If the two earlier distinctive shots allow us to share Thierry’s emotional burden, whose emotions are being expressed in this final shot? Does it not feel like a shared burden as the camera pulls away and shows us the house as if from a person looking out the back window, but equally could be nobody at all?
Shortly before this scene we have Pascale and her ex husband picking up the pieces of the broken coffee table together. This smacks of obvious symbolism: the divorced couple picking up the shattered pieces of their lives. But that would be too easy. As the director shows them picking up the pieces with the sense of existence Lafosse has given to all the objects in the film, so the symbolic seems insignificant next to the texture of the scene as we watch this formerly married couple offering a reconciliatory gesture after the family has been ripped apart. It is like an inversion of the scene very near the beginning of the film where her ex comes round to give the boys money and Pascale says that she doesn’t want him around. He can give them money somewhere else: there is no reason for him to be coming to the house. But there he is at the end very much at the house and the two of them seem to have come to some internal peace with each other as they might think blaming the other person is a whole lot less important than musing over how culpable they themselves might be over their son’s accident. What matters in this moment where the pair of them pick up the pieces, isn’t its symbolic importance as suggested by the idiomatic phrase, but instead a certain thematic texture the director builds out of not what we can call idiomatic images, but instead thematic texture. The realism, such as it is, serves to give weight to a moment that could, in a film less concerned with the specifics of milieu, be reduced to short-hand cliché.
Now if we have differentiated between the irresponsible and the culpable, and how the shots play up the sense of the culpable, whilst much of the film focuses on the irresponsible as it offers the quizzically intimiste over the narratively deterministic, can we also do the same with the idiomatic image versus thematic texture? What we mean by the idiomatic image is the way an image in film seems to do little more than illustrate an already given linguistic cliché. Whether it might be “it never rains but it pours” as we see a character struggling to cope with heavy rains as the river floods on top of having to deal with corrupt locals in the Mel Gibson film The River, “an enflamed passion” as a film cuts from lovers kissing to an open fire, or the picked up pieces that could illustrate a scene much more cumbersomely than in Private Property, these are all examples of idiomatic cliché. But thematic texture is the film’s ability to work with images in a manner that they don’t so much illustrate an already established thought (so established that it becomes idiomatic), but generates a thought that cannot be articulated through speech; it must find a hypothetically extended aesthetic form. If Antonioni resisted realism was it not partly because he wanted to find a language for the ineffable?
Thus if someone were to insist that Private Property merely comes down to a couple picking up the pieces of their lives, then that would be an example of the film’s weakness not of its strength, closer to standard realism in the sense that we would say: ‘you win some you lose some’ as a character sets up his own small business which then goes bust, or ‘you’ve got to pick yourself up and get on with it’ when a partner leaves us, since ‘there are plenty other fish in the sea’. The viewer would in such instances have grasped the film coherently and succinctly but at what cost? If we can talk of Lafosse’s realism it resides in trying to break open the assumption and see what sits inside it. What are these pieces, and does it not require from the director an interrogation of the details so that we can go beyond the idiomatic?
One of the problems one may often find with realism is that it has if not quite a series of idiomatic phrases turned into images, then at least a certain iconography. Here are a handful of these iconic images: a person holding a cigarette with long ash, a cigarette being sucked between two fingers (Secrets and Lies), high rise blocks (Raining Stones and Red Road), young mothers in prams with short skirts (The Child), coal-faced workers (Germinal). Now most of these filmmakers, especially the Dardennes, to some degree Leigh and Loach, don’t want these images as short-hand; they give them a social context, and each character a full existence. The Dardennes and others though don’t so much break open the image as create a world in which the characters inhabit and that we can readily comprehend. They utilise the iconographic realist image as merely an element in the whole of a life, rather than a summation of that life. So that when at the end of Rosetta we might be inclined to use the phrase she will pick herself up and got on with it, we will wonder what exactly she has to get on with in an impoverished existence that the film has worked hard to show us. Or when Loach illustrates that the central character’s mother’s lover is a ‘bad egg’ in Sweet Sixteen, we realise how society works hard against the good egg son when he cracks after trying to help his mother out: he realises he is weak next to the social forces and the boyfriend.
Private Property though appears to be interested in something else, in a certain idiomatic freshness that works within the realm of realism whilst acknowledging not the determinacy of society, but the inexplicability of the self. The context of the characters’ lives seems slightly less important than the sub-text of the characters’ existence, and this is why we suggest Lafosse is interested in breaking open the realist image, and finding what is inside it. If the film were more realistically interested in showing Pascale’s emancipation – realistic in the sense that we’ve already talked about (needs rather than desires, poverty rather than comfort, iconographic images of sucked cigarettes and pushed prams and so on) – then the context might be enough. However by making Pascale decidedly comfortable, and yet caught in a bind, realism gives way to the exploration of intimacy – it is intimiste rather realist as we are defining it: the intimiste allows for the indeterminacy of character rather than deterministic social impact.
If we look for example at the sex scenes in the film they’re surprisingly lacking in privacy, and instead suggest the snatched rather than the lingering, as if all the characters are endlessly on top of each other, yet as we’ll explore this needn’t be the case. Whether it is Pascale and her new man having sex in the back of the car, or Thierry shagging his girlfriend in the room next to Francois, Lafosse shows us sex as an act without especial intimacy. It as though this family is not so much too close, as too claustrophobic. Thus we shouldn’t see Pascale’s cooking, her washing and her ironing as only examples of her drudgery seeking emancipation, but also at the same time moments where she is part of the claustrophobic world that is this damaged nuclear family. After all if we were only to think of the drudgery/emancipation aspect, then where do certain scenes sit – like Pascale asking her sons what they make of her new negligee, or a moment where she showers while one of her son’s shaves in the bathroom mirror? It’s as though Lafosse wanted to bring together the intimiste and the realistic and arrive at the claustrophobic, and to look into the sub-textual aspect that generates this lack of intimacy because it is too present in an idiosyncratic form in the family already.
Now there are a couple of things worth pointing out at this stage. One is that the boys are twins (and as we’ve noted, played by brothers Jeremie and Yannick Renier); the other that there is a problematic here consistent with many Huppert characters. The very idea of twins somehow indicates the claustrophobic as biological given with the two embryos gestating simultaneously: here the house seems to serve for the boys as the continuation of the womb by other means. As for Huppert, frequently in her work there is what she has herself talked about in relation to The Piano Teacher – a mutant quality: a woman is trying to become somebody else, yet any emancipation is irrelevant next to the nature of that emancipation. There is at the same time that recent exercise in Oedipal claustrophobia Ma Mere, where she’s emotionally and sexually attached to her son. In House, meanwhile, rather than leaving, Huppert and family hole themselves up in their home next to the new motorway despite the endless cars swishing past. The house becomes claustrophobic when Huppert and co. block up the windows to escape the noise only to come close to asphyxiating themselves. In each film the absurd or the inexplicable is present. In realism we might expect the problems the films address to be first and foremost situational, not absurd within the situation as in the examples we give. In Private Property there may be a situation that needs to be resolved – whether or not to sell the house – but it appears to be contained by numerous other problems also. Any realist problem would seem to be undermined in a twofold way. First we have the house that as problems go hardly fits in with poverty row necessity, and, secondly, this is a family with numerous other problems that make the emancipatory element decidedly insignificant.
Thus if we can say realism often works with the idea of necessity and emancipation, Private Property utilises these but can’t quite be contained by them. This is a film that keeps getting knottier the longer it goes on and the more we think about it. By casting Huppert we have an actress who usually works from a place that can’t be explained or explored simply through realist tropes, and if realism predicates itself on verisimilitude as Camus talks of naturalism (“I believe I can assert that naturalism is only worthwhile by what it adds to life”) then Huppert is far from a conventionally naturalist actor. She seems drawn to roles that rupture the self rather than present it, and whether it is Loulou, La ceremonie, Merci pour la chocolat or The Piano Teacher, the role often involves inexplicable behaviour. Certainly that inexplicability is often presented melodramatically (through incest, self-harm and murder), and Lafosse here chooses to keep this in abeyance despite the relative melodrama of the accident, but the problem still resides. As we find out near the end of the film that it was Pascale’s decision to leave the boys’ father, and as we might suppose that the affair with the neighbour is recent, we are left to muse over the reasons why she might have asked her husband to leave, and why the boys nevertheless assume that she is the more culpable even though the father has a new family – a wife and a child.
These are questions the film never really attempts to answer, and this is again why we’re inclined to call the film intimiste rather than realist despite Lafosse’s respect for the verisimilitude in casting, location and everyday gesture, but that we believe gives the film its thematic texture rather than a realist iconography. It is as though there is inside the materialistic, problems that cannot quite be addressed by the realist aesthetic if one sees realism chiefly as social as opposed to personal, or where one feels the social imposes itself upon the personal. In Ken Loach’s work, even in the Dardennes, the social generates the personal, and if we forget the social we lose sight of the overarching ethos that shapes the work, as both Loach and the Dardennes talk about the importance of the social dimension in their films. Speaking of the loan shark in Raining Stones, Loach says in Loach on Loach “the loan shark didn’t come out of any cinematic memory of mine. Loan-sharking is a common occurrence in that community and in many other communities.” (Loach on Loach) The Dardennes say of Rosetta “In our mind we wanted to follow someone like a soldier of war…her battle is to find a job.” (The List) Both want the social context to explain the characters’ actions. Not at all in a heavy-handed way in the Dardennes’ work especially, but in away that makes the viewer aware of the social context in which the characters’ live and try to work.
This is not Lafosse’s concern, and though he employs Jeremie Renier (La Promesse and The Child) this is a very different world from the Dardennes. For example, Francois’s unemployed status is not presented as a social problem but as a psychological, intimate one. When it looks like his mother will move away, when it looks like she’ll sell up and buy a restaurant with her lover in another part of France, we watch as he tries to be more useful around the house, suggesting that his mother should take her grown up son with her. The wider social dimension of Francois’ rural unemployment is ignored; but the intimate relationship he has with his mother concentrated upon.
John Orr interestingly suggests in The Art and Politics of Film that where literary fiction favours “serious narratives of bourgeois intimacy, in cinema they are conspicuous by their absence except in France where they are conspicuous by their ubiquity.” We could add that so often this intimacy is explored as if the social is only a dimension of the personal rather than the other way round. If British film frequently traps a character within a social environment (anything from Saturday night and Sunday Morning and A Kind of Loving to Kes and Meantime), then intimiste French cinema from La Femme qui pleure, Ma vie sexuelle and La separation seem more interested in the geometry of interpersonal relationships.
It is this that Lafosse wants to explore, so that when we said at the beginning that the film looks at what is realistic in film rather what is realism, it was to work through how a filmmaker might utilise realism, to be true to what naturalism can add to life. Thus one reason why the closing scene proves so intriguing is not only because at this stage we don’t know whether the brother has died or not, nor even whose point of view the shot happens to be from, but also, and most basically, because we notice for the first time how enormous the house happens to be. Here we have been watching a film where three characters have lived almost on top of each other, and yet we realise at the end that they needn’t have done so. A more realistically oriented filmmaker may have felt the need to explain this anomaly. They could have explained it away by suggesting it was too expensive to heat every room in this huge house, or that much of it lay in a state of decrepitude. But that would be to predicate the realistic over the intimiste, and provide the viewer with practical answers over probing possibilities. By making it clear the film is much more about the geometry of intimacy over the practicalities of existence, the demands of realism are often eschewed and the film achieves something of the sensitivity Antonioni talks of when working with hypersensitive characters.
This leads us to our final point about the film: that Lafosse doesn’t offer us especially sensitive characters, though he still achieves the requisite effect of sensitizing the viewer. If anything the characters are usually offered insensitively, whether it is Pascale telling her husband not to come to the house at the beginning of the film, Thierry throughout expecting his mother to do everything for him, Francois who sits in a chair without leaving the room while Thierry and his girlfriend get close on the couch, or even Pascale’s lover who comes round to make everyone dinner and at the same time and quite insensitively lectures the boys on their mother’s need for freedom: he might have a point but he is hardly privy to a full context. As almost all the characters treat each other as if they’re robust rather than fragile (the opposite of many figures in Antonioni’s work, who are usually emotionally or perceptually brittle), then we might ask how Lafosse sensitises the viewer, especially when at the same time as creating less sensitive characters than a director like Antonioni, and where he is also rather less adventurous than the Italian maestro who helped change our perception of time, space and the placement of camera in film.
Lafosse does so by making the characters, if you like, primary, but the camera secondary. This isn’t a radical camera style, but it does create space between the characters and their actions. If the Dardennes brilliantly make both their characters and the camera primary – evident in their comment above – then Lafosse wants characters for whom camera placement and observation of personal interaction are almost forensic. As Ginette Vincendeau notes in Sight and Sound, “Private Property unfolds in a series of very long and often handheld takes – several of them depicting mealtimes – punctuated by snapshots of almost still life.” This isn’t the immediacy of the Dardennes, but the distance required for an exploration of the emotions. An immediate style doesn’t lend itself well to such an examination – it is the difference between involvement and concern: the Dardennes want involvement; Lafosse a certain disinterested consideration. This means that the camera does not become one with the character as so many contemporary and loosely realist filmmakers have been looking for in recent years (from the Dardennes to von Trier in The Idiots, Lynne Ramsay with Morvern Callar to Wong Kar-Wai in Happy Together).
Hence in the key shot where Thierry frets around the frame while his brother lies half out of it, the viewer cannot quite become at one with the characters, but aloof to the situation though no less concerned. Yet our concern is more ethical than identificatory, more about trying to understand a situation than lost in the characters’ dilemmas. Consequently, when at the end of the film we see how large the house is, how little the characters have utilised that space, and how perhaps if they had done so the brother’s accident might have been averted, we are left with troubling questions rather than ready answers. By creating distance in the style, characters whose immediate financial problems seem less pressing than the sub-textual psychological ones, and partial information that leads us to think one thing rather than another (thinking the house is smaller than it is for example), Lafosse is a naturalist looking to add to life by paradoxically not too completely depicting it. If realism is about giving social texture to film, intimiste cinema is, as we’re couching it, about opening up that social texture to the cracks of the personal that lie inside it. It is out of this concern for the personal, and the acceptance that one cannot know what quite lies inside each of us, that even minor films like Private Property can arrive at idiomatic freshness.