From the Refuge of Death to the Refuges of Life

in 57th San Sebastian International Film Festival

by France Hatron

The French movie ”The refuge” (Le refuge) by François Ozon, written by Ozon and Mathieu Hippeau, received the Special jury prize at the 57th edition of San Sebastian Film Festival. 

The Paris subway goes at a brisk pace. A man gets off. In the next scene he is identified as a drug dealer. Mousse (Isabelle Carré) and Louis (Melvil Poupaud) are young, beautiful, rich, and seem to be in love. They are lying on their bed, half dead, in want of heroin. What is it that they lack to live happily? 

As soon as the heroin is paid for, Louis injects his arm. Mousse asks him to give her an injection in her ankle because her arms are blue and swollen. There is no restraint in this horrible show Ozon offers us. He wants us to be participants instead of onlookers. So he puts the audience in a similar position of suffering as the victims. And it works!  Because his actors are very natural and charismatic the drug scenes are painfully realistic. In the next morning, when Louis takes an injection in his neck, we are so demoralized that we can’t have any opinion or emotion about the situation. We just try to survive in front of such an unbearable cruelty. Then, in a way, this personal drama becomes a collective one. 

Without having announced her arrival, Louis’ mother, a good looking middle class lady who is probably the owner of the flat, comes with a potential tenant. She discovers her dead son and finds Mousse in a coma. Mousse is hastened to a hospital and when she wakes up her doctor announces she is 8 weeks pregnant.

On the day of Louis’ funeral Mousse arrives at the church as if she is out on the town, wearing a fur coat. She could be a shameless middle class woman disowned by her family because of her drug use or a high class prostitute who fell in love with one of her rich clients. Ozon doesn’t want us to know where she comes from. Whatever her background is, she is an outcast and she doesn’t seem to stick to any recognizable social codes. 

After the funeral, during the family gathering, Mousse is all alone. Nobody comes to comfort her, or even to speak to her, as if she was guilty. Maybe she is, but Ozon doesn’t mind. Mousse loses control but not completely. We expect her to shout or cry, or even laugh in front of the indifferent guests, or insult her mother in law when she tells her: “we don’t want to have a descendant! We can arrange an appointment with our doctor and settle this affair as soon as possible”. But Mousse resists, full of charm and restrained emotion. She lets her think that she will respect her wishes. But, the audience knows that what ever she decides, it will be her decision. When she is about to leave, Mousse is approached by Louis’ brother, Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy) who seems to respect her and maybe even like her.

A few weeks later, Paul joins her in her refuge, a lovely house by the sea. She tells Paul she has decided to keep her baby: “it’s because I’m curious. I want to see the color of his eyes”. It’s a typical Ozon dialogue – deep and cruel at the same time. This remark is all the more interesting and precious as he got us accustomed to more sarcastic dialogues in his previous movies. 

In the beginning of their cohabitation Mousse is very unpleasant and puts barriers on their relationship. Paul pays much more attention to her physical state than she does. Little by little, their relationship evolves. Does she fall in love with Paul or does she try to forget Louis? Ozon gives us the choice to imagine. But this relationship will never evolve into a love story because Paul is gay.   

 Ozon wants to tell a story of a pregnant woman. Of course we can see how fascinated he is with the pregnancy and the metamorphosis of Mousse’s body and how interested he is in how a pregnant woman can react, move, live with her emotions and doubts, make strange or wise decisions. But the story is richer than that and has a tragic dimension. Ozon especially gives importance to his actors’ power of seduction and their sensuality and he infuses every frame with poesy and eroticism. 

Isabelle Carré punctures the screen with a mixture of mystery, energy, innocence, intelligence and cruelty. She is never shown as a victim, but as a free woman, nearly untouchable. Ozon looks at her with love and admiration. She shows an impenetrable internal strength. Mousse makes us think of Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in Truffaut’s ”Jules and Jim” (Jules et Jim). The scene in which Paul plays the piano and sings a beautiful song at night (Louis-Ronan Choisy wrote the song himself) weaves a similar atmosphere and emotional thrill as when Catherine sings “le tourbillion de la vie”. 

Louis-Ronan Choisy, a non professional actor, is wonderful. He attracts us not only with his beauty, his sensibility and his sensuality but also impresses with his subtle acting that shows fragility and determination. 

Ozon had to “shoot quickly with a reduced crew, and a restricted budget”, so he tried HD. And as he “wanted to capture the beauty of the landscape, the light, the natural surroundings and the actors”, he chose cinemascope and long lenses. “The biggest advantage of these cameras is their ability to shoot in very low light, with little or no artificial lighting”, which Ozon did perfectly while filming his actors on the beach, at home at night time…

Ozon evokes so many refuges in his movie. The first is drugs for Mousse and Louis, the second is the baby Mousse is expecting. Many other parameters can be considered as refuges: the house by the sea, Paul entering Mousse’s life, her flight at the end of the movie, leaving her daughter with Paul. She loves them both and we can imagine she will join them one day, as soon as she recognizes herself as a mother. A Happy End “à la française”, rather than “à l’américaine”.

Edited by Yael Shuv