PANORAMA EUROPE 2014
By Don Simpson | April 3, 2014
Director: Isabelle Czajka
Writers: Isabelle Czajka (Screenplay), Rachel Cusk (Novel)
Starring: Emmanuelle Devos, Julie Ferrier, Natacha Régnier, Héléna Noguerra, Laurent Poitrenaux, Michaël Abiteboul, Sava Lolov, Grégoire Oestermann, Océane Mozas, Marie-Christine Barrault, Laurent Capelluto
Within the opening minutes of writer-director Isabelle Czajka’s Domestic Life, Juliette (Emmanuelle Devos) is put firmly into her womanly “place” by a misogynistic host who professes that women should avoid working during their baby-making years and remain quietly submissive at all times. What stings Juliette the most, however, is that her husband Thomas (Laurent Poitrenaux) does nothing to stand up for her, instead he sides with their host. Once an independent woman with career ambitions in publishing, Juliette now finds herself stranded in a far-flung Parisian suburb so Thomas could be the headmaster of a public school and her kids could have a garden. Now, Juliette finally receives verbal confirmation that her husband considers women to be inferior to men.
The next day, as Thomas is off at his self-glorified job, we witness just how difficult Juliette’s typical day as a housewife can be. Between walking her two young children to and from school and other domestic responsibilities, Juliette must juggle her preparations for a potential job interview — if she can find an available babysitter — and a dinner party for two neighborhood couples. Once Juliette’s stressful day is over, Thomas comes home offering no appreciation for any of it; even worse, he neglected to pick up wine for the dinner party.
In her loose adaptation of Rachel Cusk’s novel Arlington Park, which is set in the London suburbs, Czajka offers the daily lives of three other women from the neighborhood to contrast with Juliette. The most significant difference is that Thomas does not make enough income to permit Juliette the luxury of being a more stereotypical housewife like Betty (Julie Ferrier), Marianne (Natacha Régnier) and Inès (Helena Noguerra). So while Juliette stresses about finding a suitable job, preferably at a publishing house, Betty, Marianne and Inès enjoy breakfast croissants and a trip to an upscale shopping mall (one with passcode-protected bathrooms and a classical pianist in the atrium). Regardless of their apparent lack of responsibilities, Betty, Marianne and Inès still find ways to manufacture stress for their lives, which is debatably similar to how Juliette brings the stress of the dinner party on herself.
For all four women, their children seem to complicate and hinder their lives, holding them back and costing them money. Another commonality is the embarrassing obliviousness of their nonchalant husbands who wholeheartedly believe that wearing a necktie to a nine-to-five job entitles them to relax the remaining hours of the day. Though some of the comments made by the husbands are so ridiculous they are darkly humorous, Czajka steers clear of creating caricatures and using blunt satyrical humor; instead, Domestic Life paints a dourly dramatic and brutally realistic portrait of suburban motherhood and their related bourgeois problems. While presenting a powerful critique of the inherent privileges of their race and class, Czajka still musters up some sympathy for the four women, with Juliette as her clear favorite.
All the while, a nearly invisible subplot plays out in the background. By relegating the mystery of a kidnapped child to the periphery of the stories of her four female protagonists, Czajka highlights just how oblivious the upper class inhabitants of this suburb are to the existence of their working class neighbors. Yes, Juliette does teach a literature class for underprivileged women, but she clearly has no concept of how to assist or even relate with them; instead, she ends up merely patronizing them.
In titling her film La vie domestique (a.k.a. Domestic Life), Czajka closely examines the bitter irony of how “domestic” can refer to either “family” or “slavery,” since housewives typically fulfill both roles. Most startling is the universality of this story in our 21st century world. One might have thought by now humanity would have evolved beyond treating people differently — at home and office — just because of their sex.
Domestic Life will have its US premiere at Panorama Europe (Museum of the Moving Image) on Saturday, April 5, 2014.