With a heroin junkie and her dead lover’s gay brother hiding away together, François Ozon’s Le Refuge is a subdued meditation on parenthood and loss. It’s baby boom and bust.
Au Revoir Les Enfants by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Ozon has suffered in UK cinemas over recent years. Gone the golden days of 8 Femmes, 5 x 2 or Le Temps Qui Reste, Ozon’s flamboyant fantasia Angel was sharply shrifted at the box office and his last film Ricky went straight to DVD. With its sparkling wunderkind hero, Ricky‘s tale of enchantment, entranced by the baby-lotion spell of the childbirth miracle, finds echoes in Le Refuge with a gay man’s journey to fatherhood providing the immaculate narrative cord. It’s twisted and provocative, but this time it’s most definitely personal.
Like a Francis Bacon altarpiece, Le Refuge is a grisly triptych, opening with well-heeled junkies Louis and Mousse shooting up in a family penthouse squat. Getting high is of course just a hideaway from reality, and finding their salvation in a vein in a foot or a neck, the couple are too comatose to do little more than inject themselves in awkward places. (It’s nothing short of a minor miracle that they’re able to find the wherewithal to create a baby.) But this is a love story in a minor key, and glimpsed only briefly in Louis’s dream – a romantic tableau sequence with Mousse squarely (and perhaps presciently) at the centre. It’s a love cut crushingly short when Louis is discovered overdosed, nose to floorboard.
Mousse is our grim guide through the family’s funeral politics, a leopard-skinned sore thumb among the elegantly suited and booted middle-class mourners. Here she meets Paul, Louis’s gay adopted brother, an unhappy drifter lingering on the edges of his no-love-lost family. And defying the overbearing mother who wants no trace of her son to survive him, Mousse decides to keep the baby. Perhaps it’s an anti-authoritarian rebellion or a devoted curiosity to see Louis smile again on another face, but she flees to her refuge, somewhere beyond. The sea.
For Mousse, it’s the Rebirth of Venus, numbly grieving an intoxicated past ripped away by pregnancy and death. Living in a waiting-room limbo, her refuge is a place to get her junkie head together, a chance to get on the mend and on the methadone after the death of her lover. And for Paul, an opportunity to reinvent himself away from the haute-bourgeoisie confines of his Passy-residing parents, and to come out of his brother’s shadow. They’re an odd couple – the doe-eyed, sensitive soul-searcher and the abrasive, mourning anti-mother. Always the straight-talker, methadone Mousse rebukes Paul for asking too many questions with a very Gallic “It’s OK to be rude. We’re adults.” But Paul’s journey to the refuge is less clear. Mourning his adopted brother, he’s battling family demons – feelings of never quite belonging or playing second-fiddle sibling. Yet with a delicate performance by singer-songwriter Louis-Ronan Choisy, Paul is gradually able to reconnect with Louis through a tinkle on the ivories or by wearing his aftershave, slowly diffusing the frisson of a now dead-end family friction.
Gradually, these two lost souls find a funny kind of loving, granting each other an embryonic embrace in which to reinvent themselves. They find common ground in grief and memories, and gradually become each other’s rock. And it’s a mutual fascination, Mousse with his bon vivant carefree insouciance, Paul with her black motherhood. Babes all alone in the wood, they support each other in dread preparation for a more real world. For both, the only sacred thing beyond this identity void is the baby, one struggling with unwanted motherhood, the other with unlikely fatherhood. Even Paul’s homosexuality bends in the wind in a moment of intimacy with Mousse, and as he flees early the following morning, it’s more the fear of stepping into his brother’s shoes than of losing his (gay) identity which drives him out. But it’s a destiny he can’t avoid and when Mousse steals away from the hospital in Paris, relinquishing her baby to Paul, she creates a radioactive nuclear family, both fissured and fused.
Ultimately, there’s a deviant queerness at the heart of Le Refuge, with a broody gay man playing it straight. Between Paul and Mousse there’s a fertile cross-pollination – like a fictional variation on Ozon’s collaboration with his muse Romola Garai, only with a baby instead of an Angel. And reprising his early short film Une robe d’été, François Ozon is on the path to setting homosexuality free from its straight-jacket. While the short used a heterosexual tryst to fuel reinvigorated homosexual desire, in Le Refuge it’s freedom for freedom’s sake. Squaring the circle of being both gay and a parent, Ozon’s exploration of a more liquid kind of loving shows all you need is a little hideaway and to let the bubbles rise.
Le Refuge is released in the UK on 13th August 2010.