French-Swiss director Ursula Meier has referred to her wickedly clever debut feature Home as a “reverse road movie,” because its characters never move while the rest of the world screams by, horns blaring. The family in Home—parents Isabelle Huppert and Oliver Gourmet, and three children of various ages—lives happily in an isolated two-story about 10 feet away from a highway. As the film opens, the highway sits in a seemingly permanent incomplete state, and they’ve converted the half-paved strip into a sprawling playground of soccer goals, bicycles, and a foosball table. Then, without warning, construction teams show up to finish the job, the road is reopened, and their lives are thrown into upheaval. How does a family that values its peaceful eccentricity, away from the rules and expectations of society at large, adjust to such an aggressive assault on their way of life? And how, practically speaking, can they do simple things like cross the street or catch a little shut-eye?
Meier has plenty of points to score about the perils of isolationism and the toxic (in this case, literally) ways society encroaches on people’s lives, but Home could never be described as a didactic film. Meier’s tone is more curious and observational, and it’s free of hard judgments about this family and the invasive march of progress that drives them to madness. There’s no question the family is happiest in the early going, when they look like the fringe-dwelling survivors of some unseen apocalypse, but Meier doesn’t necessarily brand them as healthy. Before the highway opens and forces them to retreat inside for any measure of solace, they’re already living behind a invisible wall of their own making; when the traffic starts zipping by, they merely construct a wall of another kind.
As noise and exhaust start to contaminate the property, Home goes to a dark place, but it never turns into the Michael Haneke movie it threatens to become. Though only sporadically comic, Meier’s film owes more to the quirky sensibility of Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle, Traffic), who was always interested in what happens when the modern world evolves faster than the populace. Working with the great cinematographer Agnès Godard (Beau Travail), Meier tells the story in small, intimate domestic details that make the Home of the title feel like a lived-in place, with occupants whose feelings and motives aren’t in perfect unison. A “reverse” road movie, a family melodrama, science fiction: Home is blissfully unclassifiable.
Key features: Meier’s 1998 short “Sleepless” reveals that her talent doesn’t come out of nowhere, and a 30-minute interview with Meier and Godard goes deep into the story’s roots and their collaboration.