Wednesday, July 27, 2016

'Couple in a Hole' (2015) directed by Tom Geens

For all our fancy philosophisin', humans are ultimately just farty sacks of skin and meat. Beyond feelings, emotions and desires lie the needs of a biological machine: food, warmth and shelter. This is the territory of Couple in a Hole, a film about a Scottish couple reverting to a primitive existence in a hole in the middle of the French Pyrenees.

In the woods life is focused. John (Paul Higgins) spends his days foraging for food, ensnaring the odd the rabbit, tugging up clumps of edible plants and discovering mushrooms. Meanwhile Karen (Kate Dickie) spends her days in the hole, curing animal pelts and mending their clothes. At night they come together around a fire, silently consuming a meagre meal before returning to their hole to rest for another day of the same.

It's a strange, silent, feral existence. The two converse only in clipped half-sentences and appear to be undergoing some ascetic penance. Occasionally indecipherable rituals pop up: John coaxes Karen from the hole and times her as she consumes a wriggling grub, or climbs a mountain to hurl a tiny parcel of leaves from the summit.

The burning question is, naturally, why the hell would anyone live like this? Geens (writing and directing) refuses to romanticise their wilderness, emphasising the dirt, the damp and the isolation with Herzoggian straightforwardness. Throughout the film the answers are gradually doled out as the situation unwinds. A chance spider-bite sends John into a nearby town for antivenom, which kicks off the intrusion of civilisation into their warped Garden of Eden.

Without spoiling too much, it soon becomes apparent that shutting out the world at large and retreating to a hole represents depression. Whittling back life to the fundamentals, - forcing yourself to concentrate on providing basic physical needs - is a way for the characters to avoid dealing with trauma except in the most abstract of ways. Sure, wild animals may grieve, but they also have to constantly worry about being eaten/eating.

Geens sets this out early on, showing us the butchery of a rabbit followed by John roughly massaging Karen. In both we see flesh yielding to human hands, the fat and muscle of the rabbit mirrored on Karen's emaciated and sinewy back. The rest of the film is a warped kind of healing process, with the time limit of a rapidly approaching and apparently fatal winter. John begins to secretly reconnect with civilisation, trying to figure out a way to bring Karen along with him. But her apparent deathwish makes things... complicated.

Slow-paced and meditative, Couple in a Hole is a film you have to settle into the rhythms of. Long portions go by without dialogue, forcing the audience to puzzle out what's going by observation and deduction rather than by exposition. Fortunately, Geens quickly proves an able visual storyteller, efficiently communicating the situation with a featherlight directorial touch. In general visual terms, Geens is quite literally down to earth, his camera closely following the characters down into the muck. 

Despite all the mud, there are frequent moments of beauty. Sam Care's cinematography presents us a series of striking tableaux; the silhouette of John atop a mountain shrouded in fog, a shaft of light illuminating Karen within the cave or a simple head-on close-up of Karen eating worms. It's an impressive combination of visuals and storytelling, especially when performance, direction and cinematography combine to create the impression that our characters are physically becoming one with the earth.

Obvious credit is also due to Paul Higgins and Kate Dickie. You can easily tell that this wasn't the most luxurious of shoots, but each carries a perceptibly heavy weight in gaze. Higgins does a wonderful job of showing the green shoots of recovery, the highlight a wonderful and heartbreaking moment where he breaks down in tears after tasting a morsel of sausage. But it's Dickie who really catches the eye, with her far more primal performance. With her translucent skin and razor-sharp features she looks bizarrely Gollum-ish, a performance that blurs the boundaries of human and animal, conveying the most intense self-inflicted misery I've seen in ages.

It's a top class piece of cinema - psychologically, visually and performatively ambitious. It's got a great ominous synth soundtrack by BEAK> (Geoff Barrow of Portishead) and tickles all my cinematic boxes. The only flaw is that it doesn't quite stick the landing in the final scenes, though considering that everything that's come before has been rad as hell, I can't complain too much.


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