A typical shot in the subtle, tightly controlled family drama Private Property finds a single mother, played by the great Isabelle Huppert, sitting at the dinner table with her grown-up twin sons, Jérémie Renier and Yannick Renier, flanking her. Writer-director Joachim Lafosse holds this static shot for the scene's entirety, as the two boys, in their own way, level abuse on their mother, who has long lacked the assertiveness to put them in their place. This simple setup is key to the film's surprising dramatic tension, because the frame binds them in dysfunction and forces viewers to sit tight during extremely uncomfortable situations. It wouldn't be accurate to call Private Property a thriller, but it has a slow-burning intensity that's oddly suspenseful, and it shifts gears effectively once the tense family dynamic suddenly changes.
In the early scenes, poor Huppert exists entirely at the mercy of her selfish sons, particularly the headstrong Jérémie, who's emboldened by the conviction that his father (Patrick Descamps) was somehow wronged in the divorce. Like a teenager, Huppert has to sneak away for romantic rendezvous with her lover (Kris Cuppins) and they dream of running a B&B together, an idea that her sons try to squelch at every turn. Tried of the abuse, Huppert works up the nerve to move out of their Belgian farmhouse and leaves her kids to fend for themselves; like a pair of suckling infants, they soon realize how much they depend on their mother. Huppert's departure also opens up some deep-seated resentment between Jérémie and the more passive Yannick, which rises violently to the surface.
So memorable as a desperate vagabond father in the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant, Jérémie Renier plays against his natural charisma by behaving like a petulant child—and like a child, he's got a vulnerable side, too. For all the colorful abuse he unleashes on his mother, he's incapable of functioning without her. Their three-person unit is dysfunctional, but at least those miserable dinners bring them together as a family. Like many French films of its kind, Private Property remains content to simply observe a situation without tidying up the narrative, which in this case leaves some big questions unanswered. But Lafosse knows that problems that beg for a resolution sometimes don't get one.