PRINT March 1993


Gillian Armstrong’s Last Days Chez Nous

A man’s home is his castle. A woman’s place is in the home. A house is not a home. Home is where the heart is.

THE HOMES SOME OF US live in are made of mortar and wood and tenderness. For others, they are built from battered tin cans, cardboard boxes, terror. We also have homes in thought: I imagine feminism as a home, for example, in which, in an ideal world, room after room runs into the next, with all the doors open and the boundaries blurred. Ideas circulate like air, clearing out stuffiness and breathing life into stale corners. But for many of us, feminism is no longer a safe house; a pastiche of cultural odds and ends, it is less the sum of its parts (sex/race/gender/classpick one or all of the above) than a vague umbrella many of us hoist on singularly nasty days. Problem is, it’s 1993, and we’re still trying to figure out how to make sturdier shelter.

Still, that the home can be measured by myth as much as by a physical yardstick remains one lesson of feminism, and is the very foundation of Gillian Armstrong’s Last Days of Chez Nous, an Australian film about women and men, and the homes that they sometimes build together and sometimes destroy. The Last Days of Chez Nous opens with the shapely, delicately bruised bare legs of a woman winding her way down a street in Sydney. The legs belong to Vicki (Kerry Fox), younger sister of a successful writer, Beth (Lisa Harrow). Along with French husband J.-P. (Bruno Ganz) and teenage daughter Annie (Miranda Otto), Beth lives in chez nous, a comfortable, gently cluttered duplex in Sydney. Soon after Vicki enters this house, she gobbles down a slice of a heart-shaped pink cake inscribed with the cheery legend Welcome Home—and unceremoniously vomits it up.

Somewhere in her late 20s, Vicki is pregnant, and has come home to lick wounds romantic and vague. For much of the movie she will wander chez nous in a narcissistic cloud, pumping Beth for arguments “for and against abortion.” Asked about her plans for the future, she gives a desperate and literal reply: I’ll “fix up my room.” In contrast, Beth is a very model of the modern woman, who works constantly—not only writing but fixing meals, ironing clothes, washing floors—and still has energy for mothering and desire. Well along in her 40s, she seems to be a veteran of the women’s movement; she has surely absorbed bits and pieces of its liberal strategies. Yet though self-confident, she’s almost eager to catalogue her faults to those who would listen, in particular to her husband and her father.

If it’s Vicki who guides the film into chez nous, it’s Beth who is its centrifugal force. Hers is the place from which all the other stories fan out. For her younger sister, she is a loving if compromised object of love. At a crucial moment Vicki wonders why an abortion clinic didn’t ask more questions—“Who was responsible for me, and whether I had thought properly what I wanted to do”—then turns to Beth and asks “Who helped you?” When Beth responds, “Myself, MY SELF,” her answer is less a comfort than a virtual call to arms. At that moment her insistence on female self-sufficiency and agency flood over Vicki and leave her stranded, speechless.

Events in The Last Days of Chez Nous happen slowly, nestled in the time and space of everyday life. Moments of discord and harmony occur over dinner, or during such chores as a walk to the market. Gradually, the family doesn’t so much dissolve as shift position. Annie begins a romance with the young musician who rents a room in the house. While Beth vacations in the outback with her father, at chez nous relations between Vicki and J.-P. take an intimate turn. Somewhat schematically, the film develops familiar patterns of heterosexual relations, only to twist and turn them from the obvious.

Just how far from the obvious can be seen by comparison with a number of recent American movies in which home is a battlefield, including the most successful film in history, the impossibly lucrative Home Alone. Here family “dysfunction”—a young boy is abandoned by careless parents—is played for laughs, and magically repaired; the burden of the repair rests squarely on mom, whose frantic trip back to her son runs parallel to his own violent adventures. (The follow-up, last year’s Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, was also impossibly lucrative, suggesting that all the talk about dysfunctional families isn’t just talk.) When women are not made responsible for “curing” our anxiety over our homes, they are made its cause: three of 1992’s thrillers—Single White Female, Poison Ivy, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle—as well as a hit comedy, Housesitter, revolve around a woman who invades someone else’s home. It is striking that although the theme of home at risk is a staple of genre film (from the originals and remakes of The Desperate Hours to Cape Fear), in its current resurgence it becomes a vehicle for the female heavy. Indeed, the image of a woman as avenger or villain, jump-started in the ’80s by Fatal Attraction, has become something of a popular obsession.

Armstrong, best known in the U.S. for her popular 1979 movie My Brilliant Career, develops The Last Days of Chez Nous as a far more subtle film than any of these others, but its subject too is the puzzle of sexuality and space. While not cynical about heterosexual relations, it’s a long way from the typical Hollywood windup. Take the words chez nous—French words, belonging to J.-P. Though Beth’s house is little more than a way station for J.-P., a place to sleep, eat, and occasionally make love on the circuit to and from work, it is he who has given the house its name.

For Beth, the house is work. In its different spaces she not only writes but vacuums, sweeps, washes. Her more private rooms—a bedroom she shares, a study she doesn’t—are side by side, without a door to divide them. Chez nous is a snaky series of rooms that are virtually impossible to chart or contain. With the second floor reached by an outside stair and balcony, the flow from chamber to chamber includes outdoor space and open air. That sounds like my house built by feminism, but the topography here is a confusion of angles, planes, and borders. This is not the feminism of pluralism—after all, chez nous is completely a white, bourgeois, straight household—but that of the liberal feminism of everyday imagination. Geography to the contrary, we never really leave the places we’ve made home. They map our memories like blueprints, precise and violent blurs. And as much as we live in houses, they live in us. It has never been easy for those who have tried to live in the house built by feminism. Ordinary life and extraordinary circumstance press in from outside, while children and lovers and even strangers move in and rearrange the furniture at will.

The Last Days of Chez Nous maps the costs—emotional, physical, economic—for women who choose to be with men. It tallies the losses, too, and cautions that to share one’s home is to risk surrender, no matter how pleasant the submission feels. Vicki’s problem is that she has never left her sister’s house and never dared to build her own. When seen for the last time, she’s diffidently squeezing water from a mop. She has just moved in with her new boyfriend and this is the first time she’s seen doing any housework. The expression on her face is ambiguous, to say the least.

Manohla Dargis is a writer who lives in New York.