Off-kilter parable asks, Can you make a road movie without actually going anywhere?
Directed by Ursula Meier
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet
Out here in the Western half of the United States, the concept of the open road has always stood for freedom. From Horace Greeley’s stolen exhortation to “Go West, young man” to Steppenwolf’s rebel yell to “Head out on the highway, looking for adventure,” the ability to pull up stakes and move unfettered toward an ever-shifting horizon has been seen as a resolutely American right. From the dusty, rolling rut of the covered wagon to the rubber-stamped tarmac of some sweet Detroit steel, roads have served as both escape and promise.
However, in the first feature from French-Swiss filmmaker Ursula Meier, the highway becomes something entirely different. In this odd, faintly surreal parable about the unwelcome encroachment of modern civilization and the sanctity of the hearth, we meet a happy clan of homesteaders who have built a tidy, two-story dream house on the grassy median of a pristine four-lane highway in the middle of nowhere. Since the highway has sat unused since its construction, the wide black strip has become the family’s front yard. It’s an unusual but useful place for mom and dad (Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet) to relax and frolic with the kids. Among them: nubile, chain-smoking eldest daughter Judith (Alélaïde Leroux); brainy, paranoid middle child Marion (Madeleine Budd); and energetic kid brother Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein).
One fateful day, some orange-clad construction workers show up, drag the satellite dish, the kiddie pool and the lawn furniture off the center line, and open the long-dormant road to traffic. Suddenly, mom, dad and the kids are effectively trapped on their tiny island as cars, trucks and buses whiz by their front door in growing numbers. The family tries to cope in various ways. At first, they ignore the problem. The youngest kids dodge traffic on their way to school. Judith disregards the lusty honks of truck drivers as she sunbathes alongside the house. Mom hangs laundry in the increasingly smoggy wake of passing traffic. The noise and exhaust begin to wear on everyone, though, and the family grows steadily more loopy and fractious. They experiment with several methods of alleviating their problem—from escaping to walling themselves off—but none offers anything more than a temporary solution.
Meier’s curious concept borrows (self-consciously, I’m sure) from J.G. Ballard’s 1974 cult novel Concrete Island (which essentially re-enacts Robinson Crusoe on a freeway median). We’re never told why the family is living in such unusual circumstances or why they refuse to leave. In fact, we see virtually nothing of the world outside their titular abode. While there isn’t anything that’s particularly inconceivable about the narrative, this unexplained isolation lends it an air of unreality.
Given the static nature of our iconoclastic clan’s struggle, the film’s drama lacks a certain tangible forward momentum—especially toward the end when the family is voluntarily entombed within their house. Still, Meier conjures up some indelible images along the way, evoking ecological decay, unchecked advancement and the steady dissolution of the modern family with little more than a house, some grass and a short strip of highway.
On the acting side of things, the ageless Huppert lends the little-known cast solid anchorage. Her portrayal of a brittle matriarch who refuses to acknowledge the march of progress or give up her beloved (if entirely unconventional) home gives the film its emotional center.
Ultimately, I’m not entirely sure what’s to be made of Home: metaphor, experiment, cult drama, off-kilter comedy? Aside from its obvious concerns—familial and ecological—it’s the sort of film that’s wide-open to interpretation. For the right art house audience, however, Meier’s confidently bizarre debut is a breath of fresh air in a world choked with exhaust fumes.