Isabelle Huppert, a festival staple, has never entirely convinced as a mother on screen – at least, not one who exudes traditional maternal instincts. Christophe Honoré understood it best when he cast her as the incestuously corruptive parent to Louis Garrel’s whiny, Catholic repressed schoolboy in Ma mère – although chances are the director was just as blatantly trading off Huppert’s psychosexual heat in The Piano Teacher. Residue from those two films initially threatens to overthrow Private Property, where Huppert can be seen modeling a skimpy negligee in the opening scenes. Standing behind her, sons Thierry and Francois (real-life brothers Jérémie and Yannick Renier) josh her whorish appearance while seemingly ogling her ageless figure; later, dumb and dumber tease her for inviting their neighbour over by role-playing some doggy-style intercourse.

Far from descending into the amoral, however, these scenes firmly establish a familial intimacy between mother and sons, where it isn’t uncommon for the trio to bathe together and, in a waning ritual, eat their meals at the table. Huppert still refuses to adhere to an obedient, motherly standard though, sneaking around with said neighbour, Jan, and plotting to sell the family estate with a B&B venture in mind. The adult boys, hormonal and unmotivated, are of the lethargic generation, content to freeload and lay about at home. A routine domestic case study, perhaps, yet appearances can be deceiving: Lafosses’ film not only interrogates the fallibility of the parent/child/sibling nucleus, but also realistically demonstrates how families so often become estranged. How else the film unfurls its mounting tensions over property, divorce, and the resulting cycles of emotional and inevitable physical violence, is all down to performance: in slowly suffocating each other out of personal space, the actors wring the material into a claustrophobic chamber piece buried somewhere deep in pastoral France. In stature, Huppert also reminds us that no role – mother, matriarch, or stereotypical whore – poses an obstacle when you’re as untouchable an actress as her.—Tim Wong