Civilisation, much like society, is always someone else. Wherever we live and whatever it is we do, it is easy to come to think of civilisation and society as being external forces that we must protect ourselves against lest they impinge upon our autonomy and deny us our Purity of Essence. But the truth is that while civilisation is always someone else, we are just as much ‘someone else’ as the next person and the ills of civilisation follow us because they are the ills of the human condition.
Ursula Meier’s drama Home tells the story of a family that live by the side of a motorway. Though their home is small, the family enjoy an idyllic life by virtue of the fact that the motorway was never finished and so, despite living cheek by jowl with a million tons of concrete, the family lives as though they are the last people on earth: All the joys of civilisation, none of the downfalls. Then, their stretch of motorway is hooked up to the rest of the grid and the beautiful post-apocalyptic silence is brutally replaced with a wall of engine noise, pollution and honking car horns. Home is the story of the family’s attempts to get used to the motorway and how the motorway changes them both an individuals and a family.
At the opening of the film, the family exist in a state of edenic bliss: They live surrounded by the rolling hills of the Swiss countryside, their local radio plays nothing but classic songs and the perpetual sunshine allows the family to live outdoors, treating the miles and miles of abandoned motorway almost as a backyard. Sure the kids go to school and the father goes to work but in order to get there, they have to hike or drive across the grass… they live in the shadow of human civilisation and yet it does not touch them. This state of grace is evident from the perpetual smiles on their faces, the easy way they talk and play with each other and the almost naïve way in which adult children share a bath with younger siblings. There is no sin in this world and so there is no shame, no misery and no bitterness. There is only a joy that is as unending as the empty stretch of motorway that runs past their kitchen window.
This joy, however, is shattered when a bunch of men in orange trucks and orange vests turn up and clear all the family’s stuff from the surface of the motorway. These men do not speak or even acknowledge the family’s existence… they simply move the stuff and drive off. Civilisation, it seems, cares little for social niceties. The next thing the family know, their local radio station disappears in order to be replaced by a brash and triumphalist ‘Radio Autoroute’ that seems entirely devoted to talking about how earth-shatteringly amazing and significant the opening of the new by-pass is going to be.
For the first time, the different personalities of the different family members begin to emerge, as though the arrival of civilisation has transformed them from undifferentiated members of some pre-lapsarian ‘Family’ to modern individuals. Father Michel (Olivier Gourmet) is worried by the arrival of the motorway. Because he works out there in the real world somewhere, he knows what it is like and he fears what it will do to his family but his wife Marthe (Isabelle Huppert) seems naively optimistic; she doesn’t think that the motorway will open. But of course… she is wrong.
Though Home boasts extraordinary performances from the entire cast, this is not so much a film about individuals as about a family unit. The real action lies not in the development of the characters but in the evolution of their relationships to each other. As the kids’ personalities begin to emerge, they cluster their identities around that of their mother: Elder daughter Judith (Adelaide Leroux) continues to sunbathe topless in full view of the motorway while her mother winces. Younger daughter Marion (Madeleine Budd) becomes paranoid not only about the way she looks but also about her health. These two sets of attitudes are exquisitely juxtaposed not only with Marthe’s denialism but also with the lack of shame, worry or self-awareness displayed by the kids in the opening scenes. The sense that the motorway and the area’s sudden connection to the world outside is some kind of fantastical change in the world is reflected in the actions of youngest child Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) who reacts to the discovery of a lump of tar with the sort of excitement you might expect from someone who had uncovered an alien artefact or some gift from the gods.
When the motorway does enter use, Marthe begins to show all the signs of severe cognitive dissonance as she weaves unpredictably between outright denial (hanging up her washing as huge lorries year past centimetres away) to extreme sensitivity and paranoia (she refuses to cross the road, even when it is deserted). With Marthe behaving strangely and Michel clearly angst-ridden by the pain his wife is in, the atmosphere in the house rapidly turns sour. In one of a number of beautiful vignettes, Meier revisits the un-self-conscious communal living of the opening section by having the whole family attempt to sleep in the same room at the back of the house. However, while the prelapsarian family lived in each other’s pockets without worry, the postlapsarian family squabble over the noise and space allotted to them under the new sleeping arrangements. Home is a film that is all about the little moments.
Reacting to the rapidly souring atmosphere, Judith hops in a passing car and disappears. Horrified, father Michel attempts to convince his family to leave the house before they all wind up hating each other but Marthe puts her foot down: She will not leave. As Marion says, she could not function in the outside world. This forces Michel to take the opposite tactical route: If they cannot move away from the motorway then they must isolate the house from the motorway’s influence. With this in mind, Michel bricks up all the windows and nails insulation to all the walls. When the house becomes too hot for anyone to sleep in, he simply doles out sleeping pills. No one goes in, nobody goes out, but at least they are protected from the motorway.
The family’s complex relationship with the motorway and the external civilisation it entails is a neat representation of our own interaction with society as a whole. Because we are ultimately all lone subjectivities trapped in our own heads, our experiences of both the world and the people in it are necessarily mediated. We can never, as Baudelaire hoped, take a bath of multitude by losing ourselves in the crowd. Because our experiences of other people are mediated, our relationship with other people and human society is something to be negotiated like a tight-rope; on the one hand there is the desire to do what one wants and be true to one-self and on the other there is the desire to be sociable and enjoy the pleasures that only come from interacting with other people. Home’s family could almost be said to symbolise the human personality as its interactions with the outside world force change and adaptation on what could be seen as a state of isolated self-contained purity. We exist in a state of bliss as long as we do not interact with other people but when we do interact with other people, we have to change and adapt in order to fit in and get along.
When Michel wants to leave the house, he faces the dilemma that each of us faces at some point in our lives: Do you give yourself up to change or do you withdraw from the world in order to protect what you have? His desire to leave the house can be read as a desire to join society and use the motorway rather than living in fear of it, while his attempt to isolate the family from the motorway produces only the unhealthy suffocation that comes from spending too much time on your own.
Home is a beautifully performed, elegantly conceived and exquisitely realised fable about the perils and downfalls of leading an isolated life. The somewhat sentimental ‘moral’ of the tale is that one should never isolate oneself from change but the sentimentality of this message is undercut by both the warmth of the early scenes and the suggestion that civilisation and other people will always find you, no