Directed by Tom Geens
Starring Paul Higgins, Kate Dickie, Jerome Kercher
Released on 11th July 2016
It’s not a great title for a film and you suspect right from the start that Couple In A Hole has more than one meaning. And you’re not wrong. But don’t be put off, because it conceals a haunting and gripping piece of psychological drama.
The couple of the title lives a feral existence in the forest, underneath the roots of a fallen tree. He forages for food while she stays inside their shelter, only occasionally venturing outside. When she is bitten by a spider, he has to venture into the nearby town for medication and meets a local farmer, who is determined to help. The two men strike up a hesitant friendship, but it starts to become clear that the farmer has motives other than kindness for getting involved.
The opening scenes of the film plunge you straight into the heart of the situation. A beautiful, almost fantasy, forest where the only sounds come from the wildlife, including a rabbit that’s just about to meet its maker. Its squeals don’t last long. Through an atmospheric bare minimum of dialogue, we’re introduced to John (Paul Higgins) and Karen (Kate Dickie), who are living in and off the forest. But this isn’t a survival experiment, post apocalyptic setting or reality TV show. Karen is profoundly damaged – venturing outside their makeshift home is agony for her – and she’s dependent on John to fulfil the traditional hunter gatherer role, even though his sunken eyes betray that his wife isn’t the only one in pain.
Those early scenes throw up a long list of questions. Where are they? How did they come to be there? Why are they suffering? Their backstory emerges slowly and gradually, peeled back like the proverbial onion. They’re in the French Pyrenees, where they’d bought a house and were living the dream until disaster struck. All that remains of their home at the foot of the mountains is a burnt out shell, the remnants of a tragic accident which also robbed them of their son. Karen is so traumatized that for most of the film she’s not only acutely agoraphobic but finds walking physically difficult. The pair have cut themselves off from the world: it doesn’t speak their language and it’s caused them unfathomable loss and pain.
It’s only a matter of time before the outside world comes calling in the shape of the local farmer, Andre (Jerome Kercher). He’s anxious to help them, overly so, and initially John backs away from the offer. Despite the language barrier, tentative friendship develops, putting an added strain on John’s already fragile relationship with Karen so that it reaches breaking point.
So, yes, emotionally and psychologically they’re both buried in a hole, one so deep they can’t see the end of it. It’s more obvious in Karen’s case (a wonderfully physical performance from Kate Dickie) but John is equally devastated: he’s just better at hiding it. Having lived the fairy tale, they’re now living the nightmare, even if their surroundings are deceptively beautiful – and they are, incidentally, equally beautifully photographed.
As the story unfolds and gathers momentum, their predicament gets even worse, with farmer Andre playing an increasing part in it. It’s only when the film reaches its climax that everything unravels at a rate of knots with a final scene that looks nothing short of hallucinogenic and makes little or no sense.
You feel more than a little cheated. It’s a film that demands your concentration throughout and, until that final sequence, you’re well rewarded with some fine acting, delicate photography and an intelligent use of dialogue that allows you to piece together the jigsaw of the couple’s story. They’re not the only ones in a hole. Director Tom Geens has dug one so deep he can’t get out of it.
Couple In A Hole is released on DVD on Monday, 11 July and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 14 July.