Accessibility Page Navigation
Style sheets must be enabled to view this page as it was intended.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Private Property


Private Property, or Nue Propriété, is a film in French with English subtitles, co-written and directed by Belgian director Joachim Lafosse and released in the UK in 2008. It stars Isabelle Huppert, as Pascale, who gives an excellent portrayal of a single mother struggling to parent her adult twin sons, played by brothers Jérémie and Yannick Renier. The film is an intimate family portrait of the aftermath of divorce ten years previously, showing how each family member has been affected. Private Property explores the vulnerable position of children caught up in the post divorce hurt and anger that can continue indefinitely if both parents remain confrontational in their quest to win the allegiance of their children.

Private Property

But the film also considers the issue of personal boundaries between siblings, parents and their young adult children, giving it a particular interest to psychotherapists working with families or individuals who have experienced divorce, in an age when an increasing number of children remain in the family home well into their twenties. 

The Film

The film opens with Pascale trying on a negligee in front of her bedroom mirror and calling for one of her twenty year-old sons, François, who appears wearing only his underpants and a t-shirt, to give her his opinion about how she looks. They are soon joined by his twin, Thierry, similarly dressed, who makes some jokingly crude and hurtful comments about his mother. From this first scene we understand immediately the difficult and disrespectful relationship that exists between Pascale and her sons. As we watch her prepare meals for them, which her sons always eat ravenously whilst criticising everything she says, it becomes apparent that Pascale has no parental control over them, but especially over Thierry’s angry bullying behaviour. When she returns home from work one day to find her ex husband in the house with their sons, she becomes enraged and asks him to see them elsewhere, frustrated by the intrusion into her personal space which so undermines her authority. Filmed with slow static takes that perfectly capture the claustrophobic atmosphere within the rooms of the home, Private Property painfully portrays the intense emotional interactions between the twin brothers and their mother.

Private Property shows the difficult job of a single mother, dependent on the financial support of her ex husband, struggling to make things good for her sons without the balance and support of another adult partner in the home. Her devotion to her sons has been her major focus for the ten years since the divorce until she begins to recognise the need to focus on her own life again. We learn that she is having a secret relationship with her neighbour, Jan, a cook who wants her to sell up the family home and move away with him to open up a B & B. She gradually builds the courage to tell her sons this plan, but they are so shocked at the prospect of a change to their lives that they completely forbid a sale of the house, which they remind her was bought by their father for them. Thierry meets with his father, Luc, to inform him of Pascale’s plan and is reassured by him that she will not be allowed to sell the house. However, François reflects on the possibility of actually helping his mother and Jan in the B & B, revealing a difference between the brothers in their relationships with Pascale. Throughout the film we are shown scenes of the brothers playing table tennis and computer games or lounging in front of the TV whilst waiting for Pascale to feed them.

Desperate for some adult support in regaining parental authority in the discussion about her future, Pascale invites her lover Jan to supper. He cooks the family a special meal and is rewarded by rudeness from Thierry and disinterest in eating his food. Soon after, Jan tells Pascale that she must sort out her relationship with her sons before he can see her again and she becomes more isolated than ever. The brothers start to argue more frequently between themselves, and with their mother, causing the family to finally disintegrate when Pascale leaves home in search of some space for herself, unable to cope with Thierry’s behaviour.

I will not describe the end scenes in any detail, except to say that they reveal the ultimate emotional vulnerability and immaturity of Thierry, whose anger finally causes great damage to the family. We come to understand that there has been a catastrophic failure in helping him to process the deep hurt and loss that he experienced as a result of his parents divorce and that he has continued to suffer as a result of their ongoing poor relationship. Perhaps appropriately for the subject matter, the film concludes without resolution.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

Private Property provides us with a window on the world of the post divorce family ten years from their break up and gives us an opportunity to reflect on the harm of continuing conflict between divorced parents over many years. The film is especially good at illustrating the damaging effects that an acrimonious divorce can have on older children, particularly when their divorced parents continue to undermine each other as they fight for the allegiance of their children. Because Luc has bought the farmhouse for his sons and ex wife, he remains essentially in control of the family, depriving Pascale of any freedom to move on. Her dilemma is very well performed by Huppert as the downtrodden, impoverished, exhausted single mother who is trying too hard to put her sons needs first, trapped by the role that she has played in creating their inconsiderate selfishness, whilst unable to realise her own desired future.

Private Property might also be of particular interest to psychotherapists, working with families or individuals, as a focus for discussion about the role of inter-personal boundaries within relationships. Indeed the film opens with a dedication “To our boundaries”, setting the psychological agenda that will be explored. The close bond that is presented between the twin brothers, as we watch them shampooing each other’s hair in a shared bath, gives rise to uncomfortable feelings of an inappropriate inter-personal boundary between the siblings, characterised by inadequate emotional separation from each other and from their mother. Later on in the film we witness the dangerous consequences of that inadequate separation. In the opening scene in which Pascale asks François for his opinion of her newly purchased undergarment, we are in equally uncomfortable territory, as we witness a sexualised conversation between a mother and her adult sons. As a training exercise for those wanting to work with families in distress as a result of divorce, this film offers a wealth of opportunities for observing both verbal and non-verbal interactions that point to the difficulties each family member is experiencing.

For further reading, The Royal College of Psychiatry website has a good factsheet on the effect that separation and divorce of parents may have on children and young people, in their Mental Health and Growing Up series. The website Divorce Aid also has a number of relevant pages for teenagers. As such, this film could be used as a springboard for discussions about the effects of divorce on the mental health of children for medical students and psychiatric trainees.

•   Further information about Private Property can be found at IMDB.

•   The DVD can be purchased at, but only from third party sellers. However it is available to rent from various sources.

•   Minds on Film is written by Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Joyce Almeida



Subscribe to this post's comments using RSS


Add a Comment
  • Security Verification:
    Type the numbers you see in the picture below.
    Type the numbers you see in this picture.


Login - Members Area

If you don't have an account please Click here to Register

Make a Donation


About this blog


Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida
Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.