The Refuge (15)

François Ozon’s films are drowning in self-reference, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Distributors have a hard time keeping up with François Ozon, who has made a film almost every year since his full-length debut, Sitcom, in 1998. Or maybe, like audiences, they've lost interest. Ozon's The Refuge is being released in the UK before his previous film, Ricky, and a month ahead of the screening of his newest work, Potiche, at the Venice Film Festival.

This impish director once seemed destined to be a Gallic Almodóvar. He produced a dazzling run of early films, including Under the Sand, rightly admired by Ingmar Bergman. Like that picture, The Refuge is an intimate portrait of an emotionally fragile woman, but it feels preliminary, even cursory, by comparison. That could be a result of the speed with which it was made, to capitalise on the changing physical state of its lead actor, Isabelle Carré. She plays the sweetly named Mousse, a smack addict who comes round in a hospital bed to an entire soap opera's worth of shocks. You were in a coma. You overdosed on heroin. So did your boy­friend, Louis, who did not survive. Oh, and you're pregnant. Things don't improve when she meets Louis's wealthy and imperious mother, who says she would prefer it if he had no descendants.

Carré herself was with child during filming (in fact, she was six months gone even before the screenplay was finished) and the advantages to the film are clear in her undemonstrative physicality: she never feels the need to advertise her pregnancy to the camera. Yet the naturalness of this self-possessed actor, who has shades of a young Mia Farrow or Sissy Spacek, does not compensate for a script that is flirtatious rather than exploratory.

It is understandable that Ozon, working under a deadline that no agent in the world could renegotiate, would want to get the film in the can as quickly as possible - though "in the can" is the wrong expression for a film shot, in another time-saving measure, on HD video. But there are wrinkles here that a more thorough writing process could have ironed out. Would the teenage heroin dealer really have been sent down "for a very long time" less than a week after Louis's death? Why did the hos­pital inform Louis's mother of Mousse's pregnancy when the two women aren't related and the paternity hasn't been determined? How does it come to pass that Mousse is joined at a coastal retreat in the final months of her pregnancy by Louis's gay brother Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy)? None of these questions is a deal-breaker exactly, but they accrue to undermine confidence in Ozon's vision.

For various reasons, Paul proves to be as much of an outcast as Mousse. Like her unborn baby, he, too, has been wished away by his family; at his brother's funeral, moments before Mousse is encouraged to abort the child, Paul overhears his own father asking: "Why did it have to be Louis?" Let down by this conventional family unit, Paul and Mousse fumble towards establishing their own support structure.

These connections between character and theme are theoretically sound, but Paul and Mousse's relationship never sparks to life; the groundwork hasn't been laid, either in writing or rehearsal, to corroborate their mutual affection, or to allow the film to get away with a rather flippant ending. Little that the characters do feels convincing beyond the bubble of Ozon's films, with their inbuilt layers of self-reference. Instead of following in Almodóvar's footsteps, he has come to resemble Michael Winterbottom. Both Ozon and Winterbottom have become so steeped in cinema, working at such a fast rate, that with each film they seem more detached from the world they once reflected, interpreted and reshaped.

Still, there is one amusing moment, perhaps the first instance in Ozon's work of an outright in-joke, when our heroine stomps out of the sea after encountering a hippie-trippy woman who lectures her about motherhood. "Fuck the beach!" rages Mousse, clearly unfamiliar with the films of Ozon's sandy period (A Summer Dress, See the Sea, Under the Sand, 5x2, Time to Leave). It's rather as if a Woody Allen character had denounced Manhattan as a dump and upped sticks to Des Moines.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis