Ursula Meier's domestic tragicomedy Hometakes a family and unravels them thread by thread. The film opens to a game of hockey on a stretch of abandoned road, next to the house in which Marthe (Isabelle Huppert), Michel (Olivier Gourmet) and their three children reside. These two entities—road and house—seem to exist in a twilight-zone: very few signs of outside life beyond the fields as far as the eye can see, into which Michel disappears and emerges from daily as he goes to work. But while the family members may journey to the outside on occasion, it never ventures in. We begin the film asking why the family came to live here in the first place; later, we question why it is that they, and the mother in particular, refuse to leave, creating and sternly defending this bizarre, hermetically sealed world.
None of them seem to mind their hermeticism at the outset, though. The adult daughter, Judith, sunbathes daily on their stretch of road; the young son Julien rides his bike up and down it, or frolics in the paddling pool with his dad. The family plays together and even bathes together, completing communal ablutions without, excepting body-shy Marion, any sense of coyness. They are close and tender, and this persists even as things begin to go awry. Huppert has described her work on the film and coming to the realization that Homewas "an allegory, a fable," and as such the characters are "archetypes," with attendant cliches. While 'archetype' may be true in the sense of the predictable family make-up, and while cliches may contribute superficial features to their roles (angsty young adult Judith's blazing music; Marion's neurotic studiousness), Meier's keen eye for human comedy keeps their chemistry developed and believable, impossible with their individual idiosyncrasies. This lies partly in the strength of the actors, but also in Meier's dialogue strategy, having written the screenplay with Antoine Jaccoud, Raphaëlle Valbrune, Gilles Taurand and Olivier Lorelle, perhaps to catch the rhythms of five voices. Agnès Godard's camerawork in turn seems to proceed organically from the tiny intimacies between them, such as Huppert's hand gently scratching her children's backs ("right a bit, Mom") in a field they have escaped to away from the new four-lane freeway driving them all round the bend.
For there was a reckless freedom and humor in the unconventional life they had made for themselves on their stretch of road, and it is stripped away abruptly by a faceless team of trucks and orange-clad men. The family no longer dictates the conditions of their lives with such spontaneity. The pollution worries Marion obsessively, diagnosing her brother's mosquito bite as fatal lead poisoning; Julien can no longer ride his bike or reach his friends over the highway; Judith attempts to sunbathe to horns and jeers from passing motorists. One day, when there is a traffic jam, a crowd of men even congregates to ogle her with binoculars. Being a freeway, passers-by are not really passers-by at all, and rather than interfering with their isolation it intensifies it. Marcel's car is humorously parked on the other side of the road, where he has to make the perilous crossing with his children each morning to go to school. And, of course, the first vehicle storming down the freeway seems a Chekhov's gun, leaving the perpetual tension of the possibility of collision with one of their intimately portrayed bodies.
The insinuation of Marthe's poor mental health ("Mom is only happy here") and Julien's reckless little-boy energy (we hold our breath with his mother as he escapes in a tantrum and has a close shave) coupled with the sheer volume and persistence of vehicles makes this possibility seem virtually inevitable. But the family declines with a rumble rather than a bang—noise is the real oppressive force, frustrating the audience equally as a constant presence for virtually the entire remainder of the film. At first it seems like the family has the foundations to weather the storm, gathering the mattresses in the quietest room for a sleepover. They grumble and kick, exercising their irritation on one another but never losing the sense that it is shared. Marthe's humor is still intact but Marcel, we all know, is about to snap. Nevertheless, the violence of his eventual outburst is completely unexpected. In Huppert's words, "it's home, but home becomes hell."
The next we see of them, Judith returns after having smelled disaster and left before things got weirder. She finds the family having fully insulated the house, blocking up the windows and doors, languishing inside in filth and unbearable heat. At this point the film is decidedly surreal, redirecting our attention from the characters to the allegory they stand for. So, what is Home's allegory? Meier has been coy about it, though suggesting various 'senses' in which it might be read. The motorway has led critics to suggest the film symbolizes the imposition of modernity, in the context of which attempts at rural isolation are inevitably short-lived. Swiss-French Meier comments that "[the motorway] is a mirror of the world—violent, aggressive, and polluted—which enters the homes of people who thought they would be able to live alone, set apart from society. In this sense, it is a film about Switzerland." Given the context of Marion's consuming pollution worry (and her family's dismissal), it is also possible to read Home as a climate change metaphor, where everyone—even those off-the-grid—eventually pays the price for supposed leaps in progress which don't consider human cost. Home, of course, emphasizes that isolation this late in the game can only buy you a little more time.
These readings, however, seem not to fully consider the centrality of the family setting—in these readings the meticulous crafting of their interpersonal dynamics becomes an aesthetic feature but not key to the film's meaning, failing to explain the metaphorical importance of the main question: Why won't she leave? The opening of the freeway serves as the catalyst, but nonetheless only represents one of the shifts from domestic happiness to horror. In my view Marcel's outburst is the real point of no return. The violent imposition of the freeway was an inevitability from the beginning—but so, it seems, was that. A second viewing sees Marcel as tinged with something strange, noticing Gourmet's expertly uncanny outbursts of laughter from the beginning, or the inexplicable tension as Julien waits for Dad to return to the car as they investigate the end of the road. This is the moment of truth as to whether the motorway is coming, as Julien claimed he saw the first construction vehicle on his bike. It is also a point where his father might be angry with him for lying. Perhaps there is an insinuated history here, one behind Marthe's mental illness or why they ended up where they have. Or perhaps Marcel has never been violently angry until the freeway pushes him to previously unimaginable lows.
Either way, could the road perhaps be read in the context it is presented, as part of a family—as a masculine anger which exists in fathers in more families than society would be comfortable admitting, and certainly in plenty more fathers than mothers? This seems a more powerfully relatable interpretation of many scenes. Take, for example, the ear-plugged conversations where, in attempting to ignore the roaring traffic, attempts to communicate are made strained and bizarre. It also goes some way to explaining the relevance of other gendered references (Marion's difficult relationship with her changing body, for example), and why the family members are individualized archetypes rather than a collectively presented family unit, which would suffice for the simple interaction of 'road' and 'house' needed to engage with the modernity or climate change theme. Still, all readings seem a stretch rather than the whole freeway. Ultimately Homekeeps its secrets behind breeze-blocks and fiberglass.