Today: April 16, 2024

Couple In A Hole

There are now close to a million Japanese people who refuse to leave their own homes. Overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly male, and overwhelmingly dependent upon their families, these people have been driven to complete social isolation by their perceived inability to live up to the expectations placed upon them by society. While full-blown ‘hikikomori’ are still quite rare outside of Japan, they are not the only ones to feel alienated from a culture that seems to grow more complex and less forgiving with each passing day.

As political and economic crises make it harder and harder for young people to pursue their dreams, Western civilisation grows ever more obsessed with its own inevitable demise. Most manifest in young adult blockbusters like the Hunger Games and Divergent series, our apocalyptic fascination keeps drawing us back to stories in which the science and politics of catastrophe have been replaced with levels of emotional abstraction that speak to a yearning for absolute psychological simplicity. We don’t care whether the bombs rain down or the zombies rise up, we just want immerse ourselves in worlds where the stultifying complexity of late capitalism have been replaced with spaces where people can breathe and be themselves.

Just as TV’s The Walking Dead has spent the best part of a decade exploring the rise and fall of simple human societies and Mad Max: Fury Road imagined a radical break with patriarchal structures, films like 2015’s The Survivalist used the end of the world as an excuse to explore one man’s movement from solitude to community along with the interwoven bonds of love and trust required to make such a journey. These films are only about the end of the world in so far as they create fictional spaces where the nuances of capitalist emotional economics have been replaced with something that seems both more real and less realistic. Even outside of genre filmmaking, the end of the world has proved an enduring source of metaphorical imagery as in the case of Thomas Cailley’s brilliant debut Les Combattants where a couple need to immerse themselves in an apocalyptic landscape before they can move beyond embarrassment and confront the true nature of the feelings. Built along similar lines, Tom Geens’ second film Couple in a Hole also benefits from the lightest possible touch of the genre brush. Set in the forests of South-West France, this brilliantly acted and beautifully shot film uses apocalyptic imagery to explore the collapse of one life and the slow emergence of another.

The film opens with close to ten minutes of silence: John (Paul Higgins) and Karen (Kate Dickie) are living outside of anything that might reasonably be called society. Armed with nothing but a hatchet, John cuts firewood and traps rabbits while his wife remains in a hole-like dwelling where she spends her time preparing food and turning rabbit skins into bedding. Shrouded in mist and cloaked in silence, these opening scenes present the audience with an interesting question: Who are these people, and why are they living in a forest? Such is the precariousness of the couple’s existence, the only thing preventing the audience from viewing them as early human cave-dwellers is the fact that they are both wearing modern-day attire. Given that cave-men tended not to wear Marks and Spencer boxer-briefs, the next reasonable assumption to make is that the couple are survivors of some unspecified calamity that destroyed their civilisation and forced them into the trees. This turns out to be correct, but only on an emotional level.

When Karen is bitten by a spider, John is forced out of the forest in search of supplies. At first, the film encourages a post-apocalyptic interpretation by having the character sneak through a series of burned out buildings. However, it isn’t long before John is stealing from washing-lines and skulking outside of what appears to be an ordinary chemist. Unsure as to how to get into the pharmacy let alone get hold of any medicine, John is spotted by a man who appears to know exactly who he is. “We like you!” the local mutters as he presses medicine into John’s dirt-encrusted hands. Despite the man’s kindness, John is reluctant to accept his gift and when Karen regains consciousness, he lies about where he found the medicine.

The man who helped John turns out to be a local farmer named Andre (Jérôme Kircher). Much like John, Andre lives alone with his wife and is quite obviously struggling with some terrible psychological burden. When Andre’s wife Celine (Corinne Maciero) goes out to work, she begs Andre to tend to his fields but the only thing that lures him back to the mountainside is the opportunity to spend more time with John.

Best known to British audiences as the other angry Scottish spin doctor from TV’s The Thick of It, Paul Higgins puts in a performance that is almost overflowing with humanity as John’s calm and competence are shattered by Karen’s spider bite. Despite Karen recovering quite quickly from the bite, John’s reaction is so extreme that it hints at a misery much wider and deeper than that brought about by the arduous task of living off the land. When John decides to reach out to Andre, it is not out of desire for food or medication, but the need to make a friend and enjoy social interaction that doesn’t revolve around the need to find food or grieve for the loss of his son.

The fact that Couple in a Hole was made with both French and British money is reflected not only in its multinational cast and use of locations on both sides of the Channel, but also in the fact that its dialogue is distributed equally between the English and French languages. In a move that perfectly captures the difficulties involved in making new friends, John and Andre manage to communicate despite the fact that John speaks French about as poorly as Andre speaks English. While the reasons for John’s perseverance are pretty obvious from the start, Andre’s motives only become apparent once we learn why John and Karen decided to take to the trees in the first place.

Once upon a time, John and Karen were an English couple who moved to France. They moved into an isolated farmhouse on the edge of a mountainous forest and lived there quite comfortably until their house caught fire. This fire claimed the life of their child and left them with feelings of grief so profound that they literally could not function in society. As their dreams of home and family smouldered on a French mountainside, John and Karen chose to retreat from the world and seek solace in the absolute simplicity of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The second half of the film is driven by the fact that John’s friendship with Andre suggests a willingness to build a new life and return to the world. However, the fact that John shows signs of emotional recovery while Karen does not creates a tension that is reflected in Andre’s own difficult relationship with Celine.

There’s a lovely moment in the TV sitcom Peep Show where two failed musicians sit listening to a demo by a more talented person. At one point, one of the failures sits up and comments that he thinks the more talented person might have done something clever with his track. His friend responds that the more talented person appeared to be doing several quite clever things at once.  Couple in a Hole is one of those films where several quite clever things happen at the same time: Not only does Geens use apocalyptic imagery to demonstrate how hard it can be to live with grief and trauma, he also comments on the way that friendships and relationships can help and hinder our recovery in ways that you might not necessarily expect. For example, while John’s secret friendship with Andre encourages Karen to leave her hole and step out into the world, it is clear that Karen’s reluctance to move on is not only holding John back but actively harming their relationship. The film’s climax is beautiful, heart-breaking, and thought-provoking but it also takes us back to that moment when John broke down in tears despite Karen recovering from her spider bite: Was he weeping with relief, or was he weeping because he realised the unthinkable truth that he might well have been better off without her? Couple in a Hole is a fantastic film because it never once flinches from the difficulties of adult life and the realisation that while societies may fracture and cultures may fall, we can never escape the inscrutable hardships of human nature.

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Couple In A Hole

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Couple In A Hole

Couple in a Hole’ will be available on DVD from