The cinematic equivalent of a perfectly constructed short story, François Ozon’s magnificent Le Refuge (2009) is a film distilled to its essence. Awarded the Special Jury Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival, it is, I think, one of Ozon’s finest, most fully realised movies, a work that will mean as much to some viewers as Under the Sand (2000) and Time to Leave (2006) have come to mean over the years. Like those films, Le Refuge is a movie that you can’t help but take personally. If you respond to it, it’s at a very private, intimate level, as a very personal statement indeed.
While it’s easy to admire some of the more flamboyant, satirical manifestations of Ozon’s genre-hopping - and the fact that you never know what kind of film you’ll get from him next - it’s notable that much of his most enduring work has been on a small canvas, one that still allows plenty of space for the subversive, perverse undercurrents that are his trademark. The provocative “red thread” that Jeanne Moreau has identified as uniting Ozon’s diverse output is present in Le Refuge, in a subtler hue than ever, to be sure, yet still unmistakeable.
The sober, minor-key mood of the new film certainly evokes that of the “first-person” dramas cited above. But in terms of content Le Refuge more properly belongs to the “duet” strand of Ozon’s output (Regarde La Mer , Swimming Pool ), focusing as it does upon the relationship between two characters in a confined, domestic location. Following the death of her boyfriend, Louis (Melvil Poupaud, briefly resurrected from Time to Leave), from a heroin overdose, a young pregnant woman, Mousse (Isabelle Carré), retreats to a country cottage owned by a former lover to assess her feelings about her survival and her pregnancy. (Louis’s mother is adamant that she should abort the child.) There she’s joined by her boyfriend’s brother, Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy), passing through on his way to Spain. A few other characters come and go - the most significant being a boyfriend for Paul. But Mousse and Paul’s growing intimacy is the central focus of Le Refuge. It’s an odd, makeshift partnership that’s among the most “functional” yet depicted in Ozon’s cinema, which is more usually given to merciless critiques of the paradigm of the couple.
The central relationship develops at a steady, believable and pleasing pace, and, shooting in HD for the first time, Ozon presents it with simple, unadorned elegance. The movie is as pure and economical, yet as full of feeling, as the piano ballad that Paul performs for Mousse. (Choisy, a composer and singer, wrote the piece on set.) Even so, the film demonstrates Ozon’s uncanny ability to bring tension to his scenes, and to twist them in unpredictable directions: there’s a marvellous sequence in which Mousse decides to go home with a man with a pregnancy fetish.
Admirers of the director will also enjoy spotting resonances to his other works throughout, both in terms of major themes (motherhood, mortality, loss, the fluidity of sexual orientation) and small moments: scenes set on the beach, a wonderful dance sequence, a challenging look to camera. (Then there’s the film’s ending which suggests the conclusion of Regarde La Mer reshaped for catharsis rather than terror.) Yet these elements never seem tired or regurgitated; rather, the film feels fresh, spontaneous, organic. Ozon seems to have responded intuitively to what the performers have given him here (indeed, the movie stems from his stated desire to film Carré’s pregnant belly), and Carré and Choisy reward him with compelling characterisations that nonetheless tap into the core of opacity which seems central to the director's conception of human personality.
In return, Ozon films his actors with a tender, frank regard that is utterly disarming. No director I know is better at conveying what it feels like to inhabit a human body, or at capturing sensual experience on screen. (A scene in which Mousse lies in the bath, touching her stomach, could be by no other filmmaker.) Less overtly sexual than much of the director’s output, Le Refuge still exhibits Ozon’s concern with the vagaries of desire and sexual identity, and his camera can’t help but caress all that it looks upon. When Mousse and Paul end up in bed together it feels like a totally natural development, an inevitable consequence of the affection and caring that has developed between the characters, and another small step on their parallel journeys to working out their futures after loss.
Ozon is sometimes charged with solipsism, but there’s a bracing tenderness and compassion to his work here that defies that accusation. Ultimately, it’s the movie itself that’s the refuge, inviting the viewer into a quiet, contemplative space in which to observe these characters, their problems and their interaction, without judgment. You may find that you emerge from the film thinking about your own life, your dilemmas and decisions, what to embrace, what to renounce.