Escapism is unsustainable

Home, about a family’s futile attempt at dropping out, defies easy conclusions about the ‘destructiveness’ of modernity.

Alex Hochuli

Topics Culture

For a film billed as an ‘eco fable’, Ursula Meier’s Home manages to stay surprisingly clear of moral sermons.

A Franco-Swiss-Belgian co-production, Home tells the story of a bohemian French family living next door to a half-built motorway which has been disused for a decade. When it finally opens to traffic, the family is enveloped in a whirlwind of screeching lorries and exhaust. In the face of this turbulent change, they must take some tough decisions about their lifestyle.

Rather than tell a clichéd story about a victim’s struggle against the anonymous forces of modernisation, Home opts to complicate the picture. True, at the start of the film it looks like it will follow a predictable environmentalist narrative of a life in harmony with nature disrupted by the evil forces of industry, but several twists and turns later it is clear that there is no clear-cut hero or villain in this fable.

Michel (Olivier Gourmet), Marthe (Isabelle Huppert) and their three children lead an offbeat, simple and untroubled life in the French countryside. While the youngest son, Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein), cycles up and down the dilapidated tarmac unperturbed, the sulky adolescent Judith (Adélaïde Leroux) smokes fags and sunbathes in her bikini, music blasting from her stereo. The family plays hockey in the middle of the road at dusk and slumps cosily on a sofa outside their house. In one scene, the entire family happily squeezes into a small bathroom as Judith and Julien bathe naked.

Although the family’s seclusion is not absolute – Michele drives to work and the children catch the school bus every day – it is clear that the ‘outside world’ is precisely what they are trying to escape from. It gradually emerges that the troubled Marthe is the reason behind the family’s flight.

Eventually, however, the outside world forces its way back into the family’s comfy existence. In one of the film’s most evocative scenes we see the heavy boots of building contractors stomp the ground. The overall-clad workers clear the family’s possessions from the empty road, carelessly dumping it all in their garden. The workers then close the metal barriers that separate the carriageways, thereby shutting off the family’s access to the dirt road.

As the family nervously await their fate, a radio presenter celebrates the motorway’s opening. One caller rejoices in the halving of his daily commute before the name of the first person to drive down the new motorway is announced – a Neil Armstrong of the A57.

Viewed through the lens of contemporary eco-sensibilities, this is an insulting and traumatic event: the modern consumer’s desire for speed and convenience riding roughshod over an innocent family’s simple lifestyle. Think the Newbury bypass, the Three Gorges Dam, Heathrow’s third runway! But Meier is far more sophisticated than that, and the expected heavy-handed eco message never materialises.

Stranded at home, the family try their best to cope with the increasing volume of traffic. The protagonists don’t go anywhere in this ‘road movie in reverse’ – as Meier has dubbed Home – but aurally the film is a real adventure. Judith’s thrash metal is drowned out by lorry-drivers honking at the bikini-clad teenager; the growl of thousands of tires on tarmac is transformed into a dull echo when the family wears earplugs in a vain attempt to enjoy a summery outdoor lunch; a ringing phone competes with radio static inside the house.

The relationships and personalities within the family are gradually transformed as a result of this new external force. The bookish middle-child Marion develops a knack for absurd pseudo-scientific investigations, noting and calculating the flow of cars per minute, taking grass samples to test for pollution and regularly examining her younger brother for (totally imagined) signs of poisoning.

As the young Julien internalises Marion’s neurotic concerns, the family gets more and more destabilised. The motorway’s unpleasantness becomes magnified into a pathological hazard. In Marion, there is more than a hint of the intrepid young green; evangelising about the dangers of pollution, she claims science lends her warnings credibility.

Family life rapidly falls apart as Marthe and Michel fight over whether they should stay or leave. In the end, they opt for further isolation. To block out the noise, windows and doors are cemented up. The house becomes a pressure cooker of insomnia, listlessness and claustrophobia.

It is a sign of the film’s strength that it is hard for the viewer to decide whether or not to sympathise with the family’s predicament. We never find out why Marthe has chosen to isolate herself and her family, but there are hints that she had understandable reasons for doing so. At the same time, there is little heroic about the family’s ‘dropoutism’. While the family has cut itself off, their rejection of the outside world seems half-baked. They are still tied into a wider social web through work, school and general consumption. As cars start screaming past their house, their resolution to stay is not a glorious act of resistance, but an eccentricity, a cranky refusal.

While the outside world imposes itself on the family in a brutal way, their reaction to other people hardly helps us warm to them. When thousands of cars, stuck in a holiday traffic jam, line up outside the house, the family members deliberately ignore the tourists, treating them as aliens with whom its best not to make eye contact. When, in turn, the motorists carelessly leave heaps of rubbish behind, this encourages us to view them as the kind of uncouth, polluting package holiday makers that keep Greens awake at night. At the same time, the family’s anti-social attitude defies such a black-and-white interpretation.

In spite of moments which appear to slot nicely into environmentalist categories (the despoliation of pristine nature, rampant and destructive industrialisation and so on), Home invites us to beware of such simplistic characterisations. Meier has claimed that the film is, amongst other things, about Switzerland, with the family playing the role of a country notorious for shutting itself off. Yet as an allegorical tale it has a much more fundamental universality.

Home does not present either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ as the correct response to change. Rather, isolationism is presented as futile: the modern world eventually catches up with you. At the same time, Home is not an invitation to fatalism in the face of change which humans are powerless to affect. The bohemian family is, in fact, entirely comfortable with, even reliant on, modern things. Their car, radio, TV and the road itself are all exploited to their benefit.

Instead, this carefully crafted film invites us to consider the delusion of escapism and dropping out from modern life, which is so much in vogue today. Uniquely, for a film which clearly deals with the environment, Meier asks questions without claiming that the answers are already clear. For this reason alone, Home is worth leaving the house for.

Alex Hochuli is co-founder of the IoI Current Affairs Forum.

Watch the trailer for Home below:

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