Have you ever, in a moment of extreme distress, wished you could cut yourself off from the world entirely? In the wonderfully literally named Couple In A Hole, two people do just that.
Scottish couple John (Paul Higgins) and Karen (Kate Dickie) live in a hole in the middle of the French countryside. They trap animals to eat, forage for berries, and stitch together furs. They live in isolated self-sufficiency, needing no one, barely talking, completely cut off from the noise and comfort of modern life. The reasons why they have chosen this savage lifestyle are not at first clear, but when John starts to form a tentative friendship with a French villager, the couple’s past begins to slowly, painfully reveal itself
Couple In A Hole is a strange, intense, sometimes challenging film. Belgian writer-director Tom Geens conjures a mystical atmosphere of unreality, a touch Terrence Malick, and there is fable-like quality to the simple set-up. The verdant French woodland is beautifully photographed, but this lush setting also harbours throbbing darkness. The peace and isolation are claustrophobic, and there is a distinctly European chill in the air, reminiscent of Von Trier or Haneke. The countryside may be bucolic, but we are always aware that nature is cruel, that we are always teetering on the edge of a nightmare. Although Couple In A Hole is deliberately slow and sometimes cryptic, it has a raw emotional underbelly.
The performances are startling. Kate Dickie (The Witch, Red Road) is the queen of edgy, emotionally exposed indie. Here she brilliantly portrays the corrosive effect extreme distress can have on body and soul. Hollow-eyed, emaciated Karen has been ravaged physically as well as emotionally. She moves like an animal, reduced to primal urges, her humanity consumed by anguish. Higgins is heartbreaking as a husband struggling to reach his wife in her devastation.
The film works on several levels – as metaphor, as fable, as psychological study. The fairy-tale simplicity of the setting serves as a backdrop for an intelligent exploration of both a long romantic relationship under strain, and a budding male friendship. Unusual and perceptive, Couple In A Hole may be an almost unbearably stark watch at times, but its observations about the human condition will stay with you long after viewing.