Friday, July 15, 2011

Film Master's Spotlight: "The Refuge" - Another Francois Ozon Masterpiece

Mousse and Louis (Isabelle Carre and Melvin Poupaud) are a young, attractive couple too drowned out by their excessive drug habit to realize that they're luckier than most. They spend their days knocked out by heroin, then wakes to shoot up another syringe-concoction. One day, Mousse wakes up dazed and disoriented. She is in a hospital. She learns that she's pregnant. Where is Louis?

The succeeding days are a blur. Mousse dresses up to attend a funeral. Louis'. She meets Paul, Louis' younger brother, and his mother whose affluence has allowed her to be callous and apathetic towards Mousse's condition. In fact, she wants no reminders of Louis. "Get rid of it," she orders Mousse. She nods for congeniality.

Several months later, we find Paul arriving at a quaint seaside town far from Paris. He knocks - and Mousse lets him in. Paul's visit would usher us into an interesting, albeit undefined dynamics between pregnant Mousse and the dreamily gorgeous Paul, who "doesn't like girls," quips Mousse.

Like most of Francois Ozon's stories, the narrative in "The Refuge" (aka "Hideaway") is exploratory. People dealing with grief and the ties that bind people; with sexual ambiguity and the psychological trappings of attraction - each entity becomes tenable. Unusually told in a rather unsentimental demeanor, the cinematic canvas teems with beautiful sceneries and bright, sunshiny locales, as though its main protagonists aren't dealing with Louis' death. This idiosyncratic convention of story telling further fuels the viewer's interest as we are made acutely aware of Louis' image constantly hovering between clipped conversations.

Ozon's choice of actors are spot on. Though Isabelle Carre was second choice after another actress backs out, most of the working script was devised around Carre who was pregnant at the time of the shoot - her emotions, her moods, the food she ate, etc. But the choice for Paul puts Ozon on his mettle when he picked Leonard Cohen-sounding singer Louis-Ronan Choisy, who has never acted prior to this film. Ozon knew he didn't want a professional actor to play Paul. "I wanted to place a "virgin", someone very pure, opposite an experienced actress like Isabelle," Ozon said in an interview. What did he see in singer Louis? "I met him at a concert and liked his "tormented soul" sensitivity and his beauty, which he seemed embarrassed about. His fragility as a non-professional actor appealed to me and blended in with the character’s fragility: This was Paul."

As an interesting side note, Ozon also wanted Louis' voice (as a singer) to be part of the film. He wanted a lingering strain, much like a theme song that reminds them of Paul's departed brother. Easy, right? Think again. Francois wanted to listen to the singer's CDs to see if there's a song that would work with the film. No such luck, so the singer was commissioned to write one during the shoot of the film.

The singer offered: "I liked the idea, I found it amusing, but it turned out to be quite challenging. I was so tired! Even playing piano came less naturally. François got very involved in the songwriting process, letting me know if he liked the direction I was taking or not."

"He wanted a sweet, melancholy song, like a lullaby. I based the song on Mon Ami Pierrot and pictured a nocturnal ambiance, a bedroom, flickering candles... I wanted the lyrics to be kind of fuzzy, like in a dream, something that might correspond to the love between Mousse and Louis, who found comfort in drugs, or to Mousse and Paul, who take comfort in each other after Louis’ death. I wasn’t interested in specific details, I wanted to create an atmosphere. François encouraged me to keep it simple, to loop the melody like a ritornello. He also helped me with the lyrics at one point. We worked on it in the evenings, after a day of shooting. That’s what we did for fun!"

The song which Paul sang for Mousse was "something we always listened to as children", recalled Paul. It had a haunting melody, but the lyrics were even unconventional, almost cryptic. I remembered wanting to pause it for its lyrics, but I couldn't stop myself from listening (with Paul playing the piano).

In the same interview, Louis was asked: Did the idea of playing a homosexual character frighten you in any way?

Louis replied: "No, but I would have been frightened if Franc
̧ois had asked me to caricature Paul’s homosexuality. What I find particularly interesting about Paul is that he’s seeking his identity, his sexuality is not clearly defined."

In a diverting scene, Mousse finds herself in Paul's bed. She inadvertently wakes him up, and the sexually ambiguous Paul finds himself making love with the very pregnant Mousse. "That was beautiful," she would later compliment Paul. Despite a simple story, nothing is conventional in Francois Ozon's latest potboiler.

Ozon weaves a tale that's reverent to his audience. He never spoonfeeds, and he constantly provokes. He almost never resorts to overt sentimentality, but the end product usually lingers long after the credits roll. And I am a proud Francois Ozon admirer. I better get to watching Ozon's "Angel" (his very first English language flick) - soon! I wonder how I can get a copy of Ozon's latest, "Potiche" with French icon, Catherine Deneuve.

Louis and Mousse concoct a spoonful.

Mousse during the funeral.

Louis-Ronan Choisy (who goes by "Louis" as a singer), Isabelle Carre and director Francois Ozon.

Isabelle Carre and Louis-Ronan Choisy share a laugh.

Louis-Ronan Choisy - the singer: dreamy and "tormented" (above and below).

Melvil Poupaud in Ozon's "Time to Leave". Ozon on choosing Poupaud for the role of Louis: "I immediately thought of Melvil Poupaud, but I had some scruples about calling him: I’d already killed him in 'Time to Leave'. Now I’d be killing him again, and this time, within the first fifteen minutes of the film! But I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role. He was immediately interested and enthusiastic. He brought his natural charisma and a certain realism to the drug scenes. I knew that eliminating him quickly would leave a void that would make us feel more empathy for Mousse and share her feelings."

Melvil Poupaud as a model.

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