La Refuge

I try not to be harsh on films that leave me with unanswered questions. It makes me feel like a hypocrite for all the times I’ve admonished people for finishing, for example, 2001: A Space Odyssey and saying “I don’t get it, and it sucks.” Surely the relationship between artist and audience is a give-and-take, and artists certainly shouldn’t feel compelled to spell everything out, as art is largely about the power of suggestion to begin with. Artists also have a right to demand a certain level of intellectual and emotional engagement from their audience. But at what point do we accuse the artists of demanding more than they deliver? At what point do we say that they’ve given us too little substance to chew on in order to understand the characters and themes?

I, more or less, finished François Ozon’s 2009 film, Le Refuge, accusing him of just that. The film stars Isabelle Carré as Mousse Isabelle Carré as Mousse, a heroin addict living with her boyfriend named Lewis (Melvil Poupaud). In the opening scene, their drug dealer arrives with their next fix, but this batch was laced with another narcotic. Louis overdoses and dies, and Mousse wakes up in the hospital and discovers that she’s pregnant. She goes to Louis’ funeral and is, understandably, treated quite coldly by his family. Louis’s mother tells her the family would prefer it if she had an abortion. Mousse seems to accept, but ends up going away to her summer home, which is taken care of by Serge (Pierre Louis-Calixte). While there, she’s joined by Louis’ brother, Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy).

The opening of the film makes one think this is going to be a variation on Requiem for a Dream, but what emerges is more a film about the healing process, transformation, grief, and how one copes with the idea that a very real part of that loved one is alive inside you. The “refuge” of the film turns out to be the summer home itself, and in that home, Paul becomes a kind of guardian angel protector for Mousse. The reason for Paul being there confounded me from the beginning; the only time we see them together before this is at the funeral, and there’s hardly any indication that they have enough of a relationship for her to allow him to move in with her. What’s he doing there anyway? The film answers neither question.

Paul would seem to be the obligatory new love interest, but this idea is thwarted when we discover that he’s gay, and even more so when he develops a relationship with Serge. So then Mousse and Paul’s relationship would seem to be platonic, and the lease they share the common link of his brother/her ex-lover. But even there the film is stingy about the details of their histories; we find out little about Louis from Paul, mostly that their mother wasn’t happy with him for some reason, and even less about him from Mousse. This dearth of information wouldn’t be so upsetting of the film wasn’t inundated with scenes of Mousse and Paul talking. Clearly, the import here is not what’s being said on the surface, but heck if I can figure out the subtext.

There’s also the issue of Mousse’s pregnancy, which takes on an even more prominent role than her recovering from grief. In one awkward scene on a beach, a middle-aged woman runs up to Mousse and fonts over her pregnancy. At first, she just tells her that she’s beautiful, but ends by nearly stocking Mousse pleading with her to make sure to tell her child every day that she loves him. The strangeness of this scene is echoed later when a man approaches Mousse of the café and wastes no time making it clear that he’s hitting on her because, as it turns out, he has a fetish for pregnant women. Mousse is open to his advances at first, even going back to his apartment, but the minute he touches her pregnant belly she recoils, and instead requests that he rock her in his arms. The most I can make out of the proceedings is that Mousse is longing for a return to the comfort of childhood, or even infancy.

Overall, there’s a pervasive listlessness in the film, and the refuge seems to symbolize a kind of narrative limbo where any sense of plot progression slows to a crawl, if not to a standstill. I don’t demand blinking, obvious plot points, but I don’t get the sense that Ozon is going for any intentional, impressionistic minimalism here. There are too many hints towards melodrama, not the least of which is the saccharine main musical theme, to ever accuse it of minimalism. There are events, but they don’t seem to fit into the whole coherently. True, it’s a character study more than a plot driven film to begin with, but even on this front it hints at more than it delivers. Isabelle Carré’s Mousse is an interesting enigma, and the film certainly seems to be trying to provoke us to figure out her ultimate motivations; what exactly is she trying to achieve during her escape to her refuge? But even for a character that dominates the film, we learn so little of substance about her.

If the film isn’t a total loss, it’s almost wholly thanks to Isabelle Carré’s phenomenal performance. There are moments where she so good that it would almost provoke me to recommend the film in spite of my complaints. As early on as the brief hospital scene she manages to sell just how deep Mousse’s sense of loss is. At first she rages, but when she’s calmed down enough for the doctor to tell her, one, that she’s pregnant and, too, that Louis is dead, the mixed emotions that wash over her face are heartbreaking, especially that single tear that leaks her right eye. As small as the moment is, it’s indicative of so many others throughout where Carré single-handedly carries the emotional weight of the film on her back.

But no performance could make up for all the inadequacies and glaring faults in the writing and direction. There are too many silly moments, cheap moments, nonsensical moments, and moments that seem to have no significance to them in terms of character or plot. In terms of cheap, it doesn’t get much worse than the sudden twist of the gay Paul sleeping with Mousse, or the ending, which is somehow predictable yet shockingly appalling at the same time. Maybe, at the end of the day, the film is just told from too much from a feminine perspective for me to have connected with it. Yet, I remember thinking that it was a refreshing thing to see the scene in which Mousse is ogling Paul on the beach and the camera joins in with objectifying him. Of course, director Ozon his gay himself, which makes such visual empathy easier. But while his camera may can empathize with Mousse’s lust, it can only sympathize with her position, and that sympathy simply doesn’t go deep enough to allow us in to anything but the shallow end of the pool.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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