"Love hurts", sang Emmylou Harris - and nowhere is this more evident than in Tom Geens' new film, Couple in a Hole.
It's set in the Pyrenees and, at first, it seems as though we are in a rural idyll. There are steeply wooded mountains, lush meadows, streams, abundant wildlife, all lovingly photographed by Sam Care (the cinematography is top drawer). But from the opening sequence, where the main character John is seen hunting a rabbit, the sense that this is not going to be some pastoral delight, like an updated Jean de Florette, is firmly established: and over the next 100 minutes or so, the story Geens presents peels away the layers to reveal a narrative that is painful, raw and deeply moving - even if at times, you have to suspend your disbelief.
It's arguable that the first shock to our sense of rationality is to discover the reason that John is hunting at all. We follow him back through the forest to his home - a crude cave in the middle of a clearing, utterly devoid of creature comforts. Living in the cave is Karen, his wife. She is a woman with a serious problem, more or less cave-bound as John goes off foraging in the forest. Even going outside to sit in the fresh air presents her with major difficulties. What, we start to wonder, is going on?
One of the strengths of the film is the way the answer to this question is slowly revealed. To all intents and purposes, John and Karen seem the sort of people who could live next door - were it not for the fact that they have this extraordinary life style. Is it some form of extreme back-to-nature gig? Are they in hiding? On the run? There must be something deeply wrong with them - or they have suffered some extreme experience - that they should both consent to live in a hole in the ground, rely on scavenging in the forest for their food and have no access at all to what the rest of us would consider to be the minimum requirements of civilised life.
The key to unlocking this mystery is the appearance of André, a local farmer. When he and John first catch sight of each other, they react in opposite ways: André seems keen to offer frienship and help while John urges him to leave well alone. André appears to blame himself for the tragedy and goes out of his way to try and establish friendly contact with John. Gradually his resistance to these approaches is worn away and the reason behind them appearing to know one another is revealed: André and his wife owned the house in which John and Karen both once lived. It was destroyed by fire, as a result of which they lost their son, which triggered a breakdown for Karen and led to her and her husband cutting themselves off from all human contact.
Geens says the idea that inspired the film came from wondering what would happen if you took middle class couple as far as possible out of their comfort zone and there's no doubt that's what happens. Both lead actors, Paul Higgins and Kate Dickie, take method acting to an extreme. Dickie especially is wholly convincing in the role of Karen: the depths of her misery are palpable and you totally believe that her world has been ripped apart by grief for her loss. She's ably supported by Higgins who does everything he can to care for her and also by Jerôme Kircher (André) and Corinne Masiero (his wife).
There are moments when you have to stop and think 'Is this scenario at all believable?' There are also moments where, frankly, belief is stretched past breaking point (for instance, the ending). Is it a love story? Maybe - it certainly played in the Love strand of the 2015 London Film Festival, but it's no love story that most of us would recognise. Except...
Except, as Emmylou sang
"Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and mars
Any heart not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud holds a lot of rain
Love hurts, mmm, mmm, love hurts"
Here's a tale of a heart not tough or strong enough to take the pain of loss. Yes - at times love really does hurt.
Review by Richard Hall
Couple in a Hole is released in selected cinemas in the UK on 8th April.