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‘Home’ is sweet until highway is paved

Isabelle Huppert plays the mother of a family living by an unfinished highway. Isabelle Huppert plays the mother of a family living by an unfinished highway. (Jerome Prebois/Lorber Films)
By Janice Page
Globe Staff / April 16, 2010

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The house at the center of “Home’’ is nothing special. Modest and cluttered, it sits by a highway — practically on the highway, really — in a stretch of rural Europe where it seems perfectly plausible for a family of five to hide in plain sight. That’s partly because the highway bisects miles and miles of mostly unpopulated grasslands. But it’s also because this blight of asphalt and guardrails is an unfinished road to nowhere, its construction stalled indefinitely by decision-makers far away.

The reasons behind the shutdown don’t seem to matter. Whatever combination of economics and politics caused the freeway to be abandoned, “Home’’ is the engaging, darkly funny, surreal story of what happens when people who have thrived by keeping civilization at a safe distance suddenly find themselves pushed right back into its headlights. Writer-director Ursula Meier makes them dodge and weave and nearly end up as road kill. It’s an absurdist pit stop on the order of “Bagdad Café,’’ but with more edge and less charm — a compliment to Meier and her beefy chorus of co-writers.

Longtime fans know that Isabelle Huppert rarely stars in anything that moves straight. In this case, she plays Marthe, a woman whose general calm belies fragile mental health. In the manageable world she’s constructed, where everyone always knows whether the laundry to be done that day is colors or whites, Marthe can tolerate her eldest teenager, Judith (Adélaide Leroux), a girl who spends all her free time tanning in the yard while zoning out to head-banging radio rock. The middle child, Marion (Madeleine Budd), is a braniac who mostly flies under the radar. And the youngest, Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein), is doted on but still green enough to think he has no leash.

Marthe’s husband, Michel (Olivier Gourmet), knows that relative isolation is a large part of what holds his family together. They live uninhibited lives — horsing around in the nude, hanging lingerie out to dry in the front yard — and they treat the abandoned highway as their personal playground where no one cares if they wage rambunctious nighttime street hockey games or park a bunch of furniture. It seems that all of civilization exists on the other side of the road, where someplace past the fields and out of our view, the children go to school and Father finds work. So long as their highway remains a disconnected ribbon of blacktop, the family can come and go as it likes. But you know that situation can’t last.

It’s only a matter of time before the big trucks start rolling and Michel looks panic stricken as workers arrive to pave the way for the highway to finally open. Well before the first cars whiz by, life begins to change. The quiet is abruptly shattered. There’s no crossing the road without peril, so the family is forced to make use of a nasty old tunnel filled with creepy crawly things. Eventually, they even abandon sunbathing and drying their undies outside.

Marthe, too scared to try rebooting again somewhere else, hunkers down and stiffens against the invasion of progress. Michel remodels their house as a more literal fortress/prison, shutting out the noise with walls of insulation and concrete blocks to close up the windows and doors. It’s over the top, but it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.

Meier’s soft touch with the offbeat material is surprisingly mature, to the point of maybe being a bit too reserved. Her direction is supported by a cast that keeps it real, and a veteran cinematographer (Agnès Godard) who does right by the landscape and its inhabitants, all of which come across as quirky, beautiful, and scarred. Oddly enough, those words define home for a lot of us.

Janice Page can be reached at jpage@globe.com.

HOME Directed by: Ursula Meier

Written by: Meier, Antoine Jaccoud, Raphaelle Valbrune, Gilles Taurand, and Olivier Lorelle

Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet, Adélaide Leroux, Madeleine Budd, and Kacey Mottet Klein

In French, with subtitles

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 98 minutes

Unrated (nudity, mature themes)

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