Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths

Ursula Meier is the latest in a lengthening list of debut directors to be graced by patronage of the estimable Isabelle Huppert. Huppert’s presence once again adds weight and portent, this time to a darkly comic fable, while she avoids dominating the ensemble with another brilliantly modulated performance.

Huppert plays a liberal middle-aged woman enjoying living and larking about with her husband (Olivier Gourmet) and their three children in the remote French countryside. Their eldest daughter is a sulky, sultry teenager, the middle daughter is more bookishly reserved and their youngest son is an energetic scamp, but there is genuine familial affection between them all. Meier begins by delighting in this warm, loving unit and their quirky antics.

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Forming a large part of their eccentricity is the unused multi-lane motorway right on their doorstep. Unfinished for over a decade, the linear feature has blended into both the landscape of fields around them and their daily living, becoming a huge backyard and playground.

When the road’s surfacing is suddenly completed, change is thrust upon the family. Soon their peaceful existence is being drowned out by the continuous noise of the traffic, day and night. At first, they humorously try to continue as before. Huppert tries to tend to the veg and hang the washing while fighting with the gale force winds that are spun out at her. Her husband and two youngest contend with getting home from work and school on the other side of the motorway. The oldest daughter resolutely continues to sun her bikini-clad body, despite hoots from all the passing truckers. Nevertheless, they refuse to leave.

Gradually the comedy and sunlight subsides as Meier segues into first family drama and then psycho-drama as life as the family knew it is eroded and the parents approach meltdown. A darkness in their past is hinted at, revolving around Huppert’s character, but never explicitly outed. Meier uses this, and their previous idiosyncratic idyll, to help explain their increasingly desperate actions, but is never so blunt or heavy-handed to offer an easy diagram. Instead she unfolds events to their logical and then increasingly warped and dangerous ends, pushing the story into JG Ballard territory and bleak metaphor.

As well as disruption, danger, pollution and intrusion, the motorway variously represents isolation in the face of progress, individualism against authority and monolithic change and the sacrifice of a way of life to modernity. At the film’s close, the ordinariness of passing glances at the house will have a familiar ring for many and truly underlines these themes.

Meier directs with confidence and entices convincing performances from everyone, using apparent moments of improvisation in the early stages to good effect. As well as Huppert, Gourmet stands out as the sensitive father trying to do right by his family. Home in part rotates around the noise the family become obsessed with and the sound design is especially superb. The soundtrack shifts the piece from the breezy beginnings to the thunderous traffic on both sides of the double-glazing and beyond, with the believable contrasts serving the story deliciously.

Overall, Meier’s contemporary and enticing tale of spiralling humour and darkness is an accomplished debut.

Reviewed on: 27 Oct 2008
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Change knocks on a French family’s front door when a motorway opens up outside their house.

Director: Ursula Meier

Writer: Ursula Meier, Antoine Jaccoud, Raphaëlle Valbrune, Gilles Taurand

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet, Adélaïde Leroux

Year: 2008

Runtime: 95 minutes

Country: Switzerland, France, Belgium


London 2008

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