A change is gonna come
The 2008 film 'Home' explores the intersection of bodies and spaces, the limits of isolationism, and the inevitability of change
“I wrote the script as an anti-road movie, as a metaphor for people who want to live outside the walls but at the same time need them.”
-Ursula Meier, 2008
Home is a 2008 French-Swiss film directed by Ursula Meier. The film tells the story of an unconventional family living in near isolation in a cluttered, brutalist, concrete home in the bucolic French countryside, a few short steps away from an unfinished, deserted stretch of highway. Home explores themes involving family dynamics, environmentalism, isolationism, and the impact of urban encroachment on rural communities. Home was the official Swiss submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 82nd Academy Awards, was selected at the Cannes Semaine de la Critique, and won numerous international prizes, including Best Film at the Swiss Film Awards.
Home opens with Michel (Olivier Gourmet) and Marthe (Isabelle Huppert) playing street hockey on the abandoned highway with their three children, Judith (Adélaïde Leroux), Marion (Madeleine Budd), and Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein). Aside from the crumbling remnants of the road, whose construction was stalled a decade earlier, little evidence of an outside civilization exists. Fields of tall, golden grass extend to the blue horizon in every direction. The carefree family enjoys a seemingly idyllic life in their improvised utopia. Judith spends her days sunbathing by the empty highway while Michel and Julien work on building an inground pool and Marthe gardens and manages the domestic chores. They are an eccentric but close-knit family. They picnic together, huddle on an outdoor sofa watching TV, have hose pipe fights, and sleep under the stars. The unfinished highway is an integral part of their home, serving as a hockey court, a bike trail, a rollerskating rink, and a patio.
“I saw a car on the road yesterday. A work vehicle.”
But one day, Julien discovers a lump of hot asphalt while playing, and the family is alarmed to discover that the highway's construction has resumed. Soon, their quiet life is disrupted by a procession of orange-clad men and their roaring machines. The stench of tar and diesel fumes replaces the fresh summer air. Their belongings are tossed from the pavement, and guardrails are installed, effectively trapping the family in their home and cutting off access to their old station wagon and the dirt road on the other side. While having breakfast one morning, the family hears a radio host announce that the first car has just christened the new highway. Within hours, a constant stream of noisy traffic is racing in both directions. The family has grown accustomed to their blissful life in their isolated home, and they vow to persevere. Doing so proves to be much more challenging than anticipated.
“They're paving the road. It won't be long now.”
Michel and Marthe must sprint across the increasingly busy highway or climb through a drainage tunnel to reach their car and complete errands. Initially, the family appreciates the absurdity of their predicament. When Marthe attempts to toss a forgotten lunch bag across the highway to Julien and Marion, it lands on the pavement and is immediately crushed by a car. When Michel tries to cheer the family up by bringing home a new freezer, the struggle to carry it across the highway's lanes at night becomes a comical undertaking. However, as the noise and air pollution from the highway intensifies, the family's mental health rapidly deteriorates, and their relationships begin to fracture. They respond to the upheaval brought by the highway with a mixture of disassociation, paranoia, and, eventually, rage. The adult daughter Judith, who refuses to alter her daily routine of sunbathing on the lawn, is subjected to the honking of truck drivers and lecherous men watching her with binoculars during an extended traffic jam. The younger daughter, Marion, becomes convinced that pollution from the traffic is poisoning the grass and the garden, and she worries that the family will be similarly affected. She begins wearing a surgical mask and protective gear, and she convinces Julien that a mosquito bite on his back is lead poisoning, which causes him to begin obsessively monitoring his body for suspicious spots. However, none are as profoundly affected by the changes caused by the highway as Marthe, whose emotional fragility grows more apparent as the serenity of her home is increasingly disrupted by the bustling road. She adamantly refuses Michel's suggestions that they abandon the home. Her fears of what lies beyond their refuge are far too great, and the family soon decides that there is but one solution—to fortify the home and seal themselves off—both figuratively and literally—from the outside world.
Home’s use of the human body as a cinematic device
The human body has long been a versatile and expressive cinematic device, a canvas for filmmakers to explore a range of themes, emotions, and ideas. Much of Meier's story is conveyed through imagery rather than dialogue, thanks partly to Agnès Godard's mesmerizingly gorgeous cinematography, which carefully explores the relationship of the organic with the inorganic and the natural with the unnatural. She pays particular attention to the human body and the spaces it inhabits to create powerful visual metaphors and to explore the ways in which humanity struggles to exist within both natural and constructed environments.
Flesh is contemplated as both an extension of nature and a sensory contrast to the highway and the violent intrusion of modern civilization it facilitates. For example, Godard's camera meticulously studies Marthe's hands as she embraces and comforts her husband and children, applies sunscreen to Judith's shoulders, and lovingly scratches Julien's neck as he naps beneath a tree. The camera dwells on her hands as she anxiously clutches Marion and Julien on their first dangerous excursion across the newly opened highway. Much is communicated in these scenes without a word of dialogue.
In another scene, Julien, too young to fully appreciate the implications of the highway's impending opening, playfully smears a black clump of asphalt across his chest. Later, he dips his fingers in the fresh white road marking paint and dabs it on each cheek. These scenes cut to Michel and Marthe frantically scrubbing away the sticky asphalt and paint. It is a visceral symbol of the road's growing intrusion into the family's lives and their futile attempts to minimize its impact. Godard employs such juxtaposition and contrast to chronicle the highway's ruinous effects on the protagonists' bodies. Images of the family traipsing through gently swaying fields of grass and lazing in sun-dappled meadows are set against abrupt shots of the hideous highway and its menacing machines. While she uses images of the family's bodies to expose their fragility, vulnerability, intimacy, and connectedness, Godard contrasts those images with the bodies of the road crew, whose helmets, sunglasses, boots, and gloves render them as insensate and inhuman as the machines they employ.
As the film progresses, Godard's cinematography makes use of the body to reveal the psychological effects of the highway on the family. She captures them neurotically examining their arms for cancerous lesions, wiping away beads of perspiration from within the increasingly airtight home, nursing a bloodied nose after a scuffle, and navigating around the speeding automobiles. Midway through the film, Marthe looks on in horror as Julien darts across the busy highway, where his tiny body is nearly struck by an oncoming car. It becomes a pivotal moment in Marthe's emotional deterioration. Godard carefully observes as the family's growing tensions propel them from playful affection to heated arguments and eventually to the brink of violence.
“They can't make us move. Where will we go? What will we do?”
Automobiles provide the most significant contrast between the human and the inhuman. Not since Jean-Luc Godard's (no relation to Agnes) 1967 black comedy Weekend has the automobile been so effectively used as a symbol for the horrors of civilization. The trucks and autos in Home rumble and roar and blow their horns at the family. They shake the dinnerware on the kitchen table and rattle the bedroom windows. They blow the laundry from the clothesline. Their brakes screech as they nearly strike the family members. While the automobiles in Weekend are wrecked and burning in the ruins of an apocalyptic consumerist society, those in Home are depicted as invaders and harbingers of chaos and disruption.
Physical space in Home
Physical space plays a vital role in French cinema. French filmmakers often utilize a physical space as a character in itself, such as the busy Parisian streets, bustling cafes, and cramped apartments in the French New Wave cinema of François Truffaut and others.
Ursula Meier alludes to the importance of physical space in Home by characterizing the film as a story about “people who want to live outside the walls but at the same time need them.” In Home, physical space is represented by the house, the highway, and the surrounding nature. Collectively, they represent the family's home. But the highway's transformation erases the ambiguity between these spaces and compels the family to further isolate within the house's walls. Increasingly, the house takes an outsized role in the family's identity. It becomes impossible for them to imagine that their family unit might be able to survive beyond its boundaries.
“We'll never leave. Mom only feels good here.”
Years of being hermetically sealed away from the outside world within a comfortable, fabricated reality has left the family unable to navigate the complexities—and the potential existential threats—of the broader, constantly-changing, ever-evolving society that lies beyond the decaying walls of their utopia. Their private world becomes so hopelessly separated from the external world that they can no longer comprehend or coexist with it, exacerbating their isolation, leaving them to fear and distrust those on the outside, and leading those outside to view them as either a curiosity or perhaps even a danger to the societal status quo. To preserve the life they have enjoyed, they progressively entomb themselves in their makeshift commune, defiantly carrying on with their familiar routines and rituals even as the society they seek to evade reaches their doorstep.
The film ponders the sustainability of existing in such seclusion, of attempting to curate and maintain a highly controlled space limited to a small group of similarly-minded people, which may become dysfunctionally insular and cultish, disconnected from the diverse ideas and opportunities of the larger society, and increasingly hostile to even modest criticisms or calls for evolution or adaptation. By suggesting that this stubborn rejection of change might overtake utopian idealism as the driving motivation for creating and maintaining such spaces, Meier cautions that our spaces and institutions might come to define, restrict, or even replace our core values and identities if we retreat to them out of fear or uncertainty.
Director Ursula Meier describes the highway in Home as a metaphor for the “violent, aggressive, and polluted” world that disrupts the lives of those who wish to “live alone, set apart from society.” Her film dramatically acknowledges the destructive potential of modernity while also scrutinizing the consequences of fearfully clinging to the familiar or constructing spaces as refuges. Meier suggests that a stern refusal to confront change realistically can become more toxic, disruptive, and detrimental than the driving forces behind change. This conflict between stasis and change can lead to either growth and progress or isolationism and dysfunction.
“You think it can be a roller rink forever?”
By the film's end, the house—its windows mortared with concrete blocks, its walls covered with sheets of fiberglass insulation, its inhabitants struggling to breathe—ceases to be a home and becomes something no less monstrous and destructive than the highway and the invasive civilization it represents.
Home is a beautiful film with implications for those whose insularism may leave them removed from reality, opposed to progress, indifferent to criticism, and vulnerable to the adverse impacts of change. Adapting to change may be difficult, but avoiding change is all but futile, and the escapist utopias we construct for ourselves can sometimes become our prisons. 🪐