Francois Ozon’s “Le Refuge” begins where most movies climax. It opens with junkie Parisian couple Mousse (Isabelle Carre) and Louis (Melvil Poupaud) overdosing on heroin in weary ecstasy. The next morning, Louis dies; when Mousse wakes up in a coma, she’s single and pregnant. Retreating to a quiet home in the countryside, she settles into a lonely existence. Louis’s brother Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy) pays her a visit, introducing a new chance for Mousse to obtain emotional catharsis with the family of her late lover. The connection that blossoms between these two characters forms the bulk of the running time, leading to a gentle portrait of emotional reconciliation that steadily unfurls from its haunting opener.
But the movie’s cumulative impact is resolutely minor. Since Mousse’s conundrum becomes apparent in a matter of minutes, Ozon’s story avoids piling onto the scenario. Instead, its total effect amounts to a thematic rumination. Plagued by grief, Mousse desperately needs an outlet — whether it’s drugs, sex or conversation, and each of those possibilities threatens to lead her back to despair. Unlike Ozon’s more stylistic works, “Le Refuge” adopts realism as its modus operandi. Similarly, the director left out his satiric tendencies in this one, allowing Carre’s sad eyes and hesitant behavior to lead the story.
That said, the movie contains an admirable amount of psychological depth. A lovemaking scene later in the movie mimics the drug sequence from the beginning, suggesting a cyclical nature to Mousse’s purification. Ozon subtly suggests that she has developed an attraction to Paul because of his physical resemblance to Louis, but the tension is manifested in purely visual terms. His camera functions like prose.
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It would miss the point to consider “Le Refuge” an anti-climactic movie, but it does thrive on understatement. Ozon deals with weighty ideas about sexuality and isolation visible in his other movies — such as “Time Out” and “Swimming Pool” — but the sum total of the movie’s dramatic concerns amount to more of a meditation than a fully realized narrative. As a window into personal tumult, however, it emerges as a singularly engaging work of art.