Friday 20 August 2010

The Refuge (François Ozon, France, 2009)

The Refuge is a kind of triptych, the central ‘panel’ the longest section, flanked by two much shorter parts. A refuge bookended by death and life. From tri ‘three,’ and ptychē ‘ fold,’ the cinematic structure of the narrative seems to enclose the characters. Or perhaps, more accurately, this enclosure is a function of the way in which François Ozon presents the characters. They do not act in the world so much as experience it. They are avoiding, enjoying, tired, vital, lost, nomadic, numb, sensitive. If there is movement in The Refuge, it is an exchange between these various poles of life, avoidance becomes enjoyment; tiredness becomes vitality, and so on. They do not yet know their place in the world… and this is liberating yet frightening, confusing but with moments of perfect clarity…

The central story, the refuge of The Refuge, revolves around the relationship between Mousse and Paul. Mousse is a pregnant heroin addict, in recovery with methadone; Paul is a rich boy, queer, setting himself adrift on an endless holiday. They are staying in a lovely cottage in the south of France, near the sea. During their short time together, Paul – agile, open, active – passes on some of his vitality to Mousse. In this way, it is Mousse who is the main focus of the film, in the sense that it is her pregnancy which is at the heart of things. They originally meet in the first part of the triptych. Mousse and her boyfriend overdose on heroin. He dies. She lives. Upon awaken from a coma she is told she is pregnant. Her boyfriend’s mother offers to pay for her to abort the foetus. Paul is the boyfriend’s brother. The final part of the triptych, also set in Paris, sees Mousse being visited by Paul in hospital after giving birth. If they are connected by death, they are now also connected by life… Mousse abandons the baby for Paul to look after.

Why does Mousse abandon her baby? Why does Paul visit Mousse in the refuge? Why do Paul and Mousse sleep with each other? Answers to these questions, and many others, remain opaque. This opacity is crucial. It is the nucleus of Ozon’s cinematic strategy in The Refuge. It is in this sense we can say that this film does not focus upon actions, emotions or thoughts, but on the body. Dead bodies, sleeping bodies, dancing bodies, tired bodies, bodies making love, tanned bodies… but – above all – pregnant bodies.

The Refuge is an encounter with the opacity of another’s body. This means we must confront the ambiguity of bodies that do not act, that do not express emotion, that do not – or cannot – express their thoughts. Yet this is not the purpose of the film… but rather the impetus, the beginning. And it is from these enclosures we approach the true power of The Refuge. To understand why, we can turn to the cinematic philosophy of Gilles Deleuze.

Deleuze, in his great taxonomy of cinema, calls this type of film the time-image. The time-image operates, in the first instance, by creating opsigns and sonsigns, pure visual and audio images. In opposition to the cinema of the movement-image, which organises a narrative through the linkage of distinct moments (such as perception, affect, action and thought), opsigns and sonsigns resist this flow. Rather, these signs appear in-and-of-themselves. They do not link image to image, they link what is actual (on-screen) to the virtual (what is not on screen). In short, while the movement-image asks the spectator to think with the film, opsigns and sonsigns attempt to get the spectator to think for themselves in respect to what the film does not think. This is the unthought. The unthought of the film generating what would have remained unthinkable by the spectator. This is the power of The Refuge.

We can be more specific. Time-image opsigns and sonsigns can be organised in a number of ways, at the level of image (hyalosigns), narrative (chronosigns) and story (noosigns). Without doubt all these factors come to bear on a time-image film, however, any film of the time-image will tend to prioritise, or be organised around one of these aspects. It is clear that Ozon’s film produces hyalosigns, Mousse in the bath with her belly is a complex image in-and-of-itself, as is Mouuse in the mirror, or the couple at the piano while Paul sings the song ‘The Refuge’. At the level of narration, the triptych structure is a powerful chronosign, a simple linear organisation which places each ‘panel’ into its own temporal zone, a past, present and future. However, The Refuge is film which foregrounds the story of the characters above and beyond images and narration. This is the noosign. One of the signs of the noosign is what Deleuze calls the body of ‘attitude’, ‘the everyday body’ (C2:192;190).

Crucially, for Deleuze, ‘the body is no longer the obstacle that separates thought from itself, that which it has to overcome to reach thinking. It is on the contrary that which it plunges into or must plunge into, in order to reach the unthought, that is life. Not that the body thinks, but, obstinate and stubborn, it forces us to think, and forces us to think what is concealed from thought, life’ (C2:189). Mousse is numb from the tragedy of her own near death and the death of her boyfriend, is numb to the potential for life that is within her and her belly. Paul is the catalyst for her awakening, but in the devastating abandonment of her child, Mousse becomes a catalyst for Paul finding a place in the world, one that reflects his own origins (he was adopted). These are all events, generated through bodies. The point is they occur without reference to defined contexts, reasonings, explications, justifications. Why does Mousse abandon her baby? Why does Paul visit Mousse in the refuge? Why do Paul and Mousse sleep with each other?

The Refuge resists thinking these things for us. ‘It is through the body (and no longer through the intermediary of the body) that cinema forms its alliance with the spirit, with thought’ (C2:189).

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