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★★★☆☆

Dir. Ursula Meier. 2008. N/R. 98mins. In French, with subtitles. Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet, Adélaïde Leroux.

Terrific performances and superb cinematography (by Claire Denis’ right-hand, Agnès Godard) lift cowriter-director Ursula Meier’s feature debut above its thuddingly metaphorical premise. A family headed by Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet lives at the end of a decommissioned highway that is about to reopen after ten years; with the passing of the first car their idyllic existence starts to crumble. Those who’ve seen Huppert martyr her way through Michael Haneke joints or Gourmet lend his profound everyman’s affect to the Dardenne brothers’ work know there’s going to be plenty of expelled-from-Eden agonizing.

That there is, but what lingers is the sense of connection underlying the hysterics. Huppert and Gourmet (along with the wonderful young actors Adélaïde Leroux, Madeleine Budd and Kacey Mottet Klein) never fail to convince us that, even when they’re at each other’s throats, the family’s blood ties are always certain. The performers manage to overcome Meier’s schematic framework—too “modern-day fairy tale” for its own good—though the director clearly knows which collaborators and elements to enlist for game-raising purposes. It should probably be a film-handbook rule by now: Never doubt the effectiveness of a Nina Simone–scored finale.—Keith Uhlich

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The Completist: Archive: 2009