The Refuge (2009)


Skin deep

I.V. drug use and pregnancy don’t mix, but that is a fact smoothed over in this chic meditation by François Ozon, who enlisted the actually pregnant Isabelle Carré as the lead. In the prologue, the innocent-looking Emile Berling is the dealer who brings a fatal dose that kills off boyfriend Louis (Ozon’s Time to Leave star Melvil Poupaud) and lands girlfriend Mousse (Carré) in the hospital. There, awakening from a drug coma, she learns she is pregnant by Louis. A post-funeral interlude with Louis’ posh family follows in which we learn he has a handsome gay brother, Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy). The parents seem to differ sharply on which sibling they’d rather have given up; the father is devastated by Louis’ early demise, the mother feels somehow vindicated. Eventually we get a glimpse at why, though in this pretty film, relationships are more talked about than acted out on screen.

Mousse moves to a spacious house in the country near the beach lent her by an older former lover, and here she leads a quiet but rather lonely existence, having groceries delivered by a local, Serge (Pierre Louis-Calixte). Along comes Paul on a visit. Uninvited and at first unwelcome, he nonetheless lingers for a while and hugs, talks, and a visit to an ear-splitting disco follow in which the two bond and details of their lives are revealed. Mousse gets an opportunity to process her relationship with Louis and achieve a degree of emotional closure. However, it seems Paul is a more appropriate parent for her child than she is. Even though he gets drunk a lot, spends his time on the beach, and has a fling with Serge, who turns out also to be gay.

Once we’ve gotten past Louis’ and Mousse’s empty flat and overused veins in the prolouge, Le refuge is beautiful to look at, and its melancholy happens in summer sunlight. It’s an upscale, French version of a Hollywood movie, but with the punch-line scrupulously removed. It’s just an exploration of themes. But what themes? Certainly drug addiction and pregnancy are not subjects treated in any depth. Using an actually pregnant actress and having various people touch or listen to her belly never keep this from being a strangely clueless tour of expectant motherhood. Mousse periodically quaffs vials of Methadone, but the significance of this for a pregnant woman is barely touched on. One wonders whether, were he not as handsome, suave, and sun-kissed, Paul’s presence as a family therapist would be as welcome; or if all this would be so painless if the addict couple weren’t from moneyed families.

Ozon isn’t flip or stylistically playful as he is in films like Swimming Pool or 8 Women, or (most of all) Water Drops on Burning Rocks; this is more the serious vein of Time to Leave, and has a feeling that’s more lyrical and sweet than any of these, perhaps a bit like Under the Sand. But there is a troubling sense of serious matters alluded to, but insufficiently addressed. Despite reference to such heavy stuff as drug addiction, single pregnancy, and loneliness, Le refuge (doesn’t the title itself focus on escape?) makes them all seem too easy, assuaged by sun and sea and a handsome, conveniently undemanding gay man. Le refuge winds up being a vague, glossy advertisement for gay parenthood. In his mid-forties now, the prolific Ozon is moving toward more serious subject matter, but seriousness doesn’t always mean depth. His moments of boldness may work better when they’re a bit more flip and sassy. Le refuge winds up being flat and obvious, despite its elegance.

Le refuge was co-scripted by Ozon with Matthieu Hippeau. After going the rounds of some festivals (it won a special prize at San Sebastian), the film opened in Paris January 27, 2010 to generally lukewarm but not unkind reviews. It has gotten good international distribution and will be released in the US by Strand. It was part of the uni-France/Film Society of Lincoln Center series the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in March 2010 with screenings at the Walter Reade Theater and IFC Center.   Lots of festival screenings.  Showing in London cinemas summer, 2010.  Peter French of the Guardian saw links with Eric Rohmer and “those romantic summer holiday pictures the French love,” but this is a downbeat version of one.


Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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