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.