Le Refuge Review
With an eclectic range that takes in colourful musicals, romance fiction and meditations on death and bereavement, it’s often difficult to know just what to make of the films François Ozon, but don’t mistake variety for inconsistency. If the films then can be broadly characterised into two strands – flights of fancy on the one hand and more serious meditations on life on the other – even films as diverse (or perverse) as Sitcom, 8 Women, 5x2, Swimming Pool and Ricky frequently share common underlying layers and themes relating to family, relationships, dysfunction and the breaking of social norms. Regardless of which approach he adopts, these are explorations of subjects that Ozon, in his relating them to the nature of homosexuality, makes thoroughly his own.
It becomes clear from the very first, painful scene of two junkies shooting up heroin through hardened veins, culminating in a fatal overdose for one of them, that Le Refuge belongs firmly to the more serious side of the Ozon filmography. Intriguingly, in some ways Le Refuge is almost the exact opposite of his 2005 film, Time to Leave. The earlier film deals with a young man (coincidentally – or perhaps not – played by Melvil Poupaud, the young junkie who dies at the start of this film) who has a terminal cancer and wanders around, ending up on a beach, trying to come to terms with the death he is carrying inside him. Le Refuge, on the other hand, is mainly about a young woman who is carrying life inside her who escapes from Paris to a far shore away to try to come to terms with what it means to continue life on when her partner is dead.
The young woman is Mousse (Isabelle Carré), and her partner is Louis (Melvil Poupaud), the junkie who died of an overdose at the start of the film. Having had a close brush with death and finding it difficult to overcome her addiction, Mousse is therefore uncertain how to deal with the fact that she is pregnant with Louis’ child. Louis’ aristocratic family, scarcely able to deal with the circumstances of their eldest heir’s death, have however no doubts about their desire to see the pregnancy terminated, and the dead man’s mother (Claire Vernet) makes it perfectly and politely clear about that the nature of her wishes, as well as the fact that they are instructions and not a request. Mousse however disappears, by herself, to a country retreat near the Basque coast, where she is joined for a time by Louis’ brother Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy), on his way to Spain. Although they have both lost a person in common, Mousse and Paul could hardly be more different in how they have to deal with the changes that this has brought about in their lives.
As is often the case with Ozon’s “serious” films, there is really no great narrative device that drives Le Refuge. The purpose of the film is established in the opening dramatic opening scenes and then it is left for the principal characters to pick up their lives from a significant event. While they seem to be harder for film critics to easily categorise, Ozon’s more colourful entertainments do however at least tend to have more variety (although this has the reverse effect of them often not being taken seriously enough) and are not so reliant on the shorthand approach that is a little too common throughout his more serious treatments. 5x2 was certainly the most adventurous in its backward structure, but those familiar with Ozon’s work in the meditative vein will notice that people here in Le Refuge sit on the sand at a beach and “Regarde le mer” – staring out to the sea just as they did in Under The Sand, 5x2 and Time to Leave. There are however enough subtle distinctions and familiar Ozon touches that hold the viewer throughout Le Refuge and give a great deal more to consider after the closing titles have run.
While he certainly isn’t the main subject of the film, Paul is certainly significant to the angle that Ozon takes on the nature of birth, life and families, particularly in relation to his homosexuality. Like many of Ozon’s films, the question of where a homosexuality fits into the conventional family model is raised, as is the question of whether the traditional family model is indeed a healthy one or not. Certainly the example shown by Louis’ family in their inability to deal with their son’s addiction, death and legacy hardly seems one to aspire to, but while Paul and Mousse struggle to find their own roles in the family unit, the answer, if there is one, remains as elusive here as it does in other Ozon films, and their lives seem to be more defined by what they lack than what they have. That doesn’t mean that the question isn’t worth examining, and benefiting as it does from a terrific, complex performance from a genuinely pregnant Isabelle Carré, Le Refuge does manage to make those issues seem real and authentic concerns, expanding even further and deepening the scope of questions raised in Ozon’s increasingly impressive and diverse range of films.