Having made his name with perverse tales of strange relationships in Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003) and dazzled audiences with the all-star 8 Women (2002), French director François Ozon is back with The Refuge, a low-key, meditative story that follows Mousse (Isabelle Carré), a drug addict who finds she’s pregnant after her lover Louis (Melvil Poupaud) dies of an overdose. Against the wishes of Louis’s mother, Mousse decides to keep the child and goes away to a house by the seaside for the duration of her pregnancy. There, she is briefly joined by Louis’s brother Paul (played by the singer Louis-Ronan Choisy), a fragile-looking homosexual man, who stops by to visit her on his way to Spain. The Refuge originated from Ozon’s desire to film a pregnant actress and became possible when Isabelle Carré, pregnant with her first child, agreed to play the part of Mousse.
Virginie Sélavy talks to François Ozon about wanting to challenge preconceptions about maternity, his interest in identity, and the unexpected reaction of the French right-wing press to the film.
VS: The Refuge seems much more luminous than your previous films. Do you feel your work has evolved in some way?
FO: There is necessarily an evolution, but it’s not something I’m aware of and that I control. Each story calls for a different treatment. What I wanted to do here was to start with darkness, violence, cruelty, and go towards light. I wanted all the narrative elements to be there at the start, almost to get rid of them, to go towards something that would be more about sensations and emotions, something more contemplative.
Your work is often concerned with fluid, ambiguous sexual identities and this is present again here in the relationship that develops between Mousse and Paul. But here it seems to have a more tender aspect than in your previous films.
I’m interested in identities that are not defined yet, that are gestating. That’s what I want to do in films, I want to show things that are not finished, that are being constructed, and to participate in, or rather follow, the construction of that identity. Here it’s the intimate as much as sexual identity of a young woman whose pregnancy has absolutely nothing to do with the desire to have a child, but is a means to survive an intense emotional shock after the man she loved dies.
Why did you choose to focus on a pregnant woman?
I was interested in going against the dominant idea of maternity today. I wanted to link pregnancy to a survival instinct, but not to the desire to have a child. Mousse decides to keep the child, and you could wonder whether it’s a gesture of opposition against Louis’s family. But for me, it was more about the idea of preserving life. It’s a bit like in Under the Sand, a woman who is in an extremely painful situation and finds a slightly twisted way, an oblique way, of coping with the pain of the loved one’s absence. In Under the Sand, Charlotte Rampling’s character imagined that she was living with a ghost, that he was still there, to the extent that other people thought she was mad. Here, the character of Mousse decides to keep Louis inside her through this child. It’s about continuity.
Your previous film, Ricky (2009), also revolved around the evolution of a couple after the birth of a child.
In Ricky, it’s the second phase. The Refuge ends with the birth of the child whereas Ricky starts with the arrival of the child. Ricky looks at how everyone finds their place after the appearance of an exterior element. But it wasn’t just the child, it was also the character of Sergi LÃ³pez. It was about how the family unit can be disturbed when you add a new person.
Was it difficult for you to make a film about an experience that is exclusively feminine?
Sadly, it’s something that I will never experience in my own body, so it’s very mysterious. In the film, I feel close to the character of the man who picks Mousse up, who is attracted to her sexually, but finds himself cradling her like a child in a hotel room, unable to understand what is going on.
Did Isabelle Carré contribute to the script?
She gave her opinion. She was a source of inspiration. For instance, I wanted the scene with the man who picks her up to end in a strange way. I asked Isabelle if she had an idea about what her character could ask the man to do that would have nothing to do with sexuality. She had just returned from a haptonomy session and her consultant had said that she should ask her husband to cradle her, so that’s what we did. What’s funny is that Isabelle was so tired that day that she fell asleep, and I filmed her, so it was a bit accidental.
There is a very interesting relationship between fiction and reality in this film.
That’s what interested me. I set it all up so that at one point the film would become a documentary on Isabelle Carré. Even though Isabelle was going through her pregnancy in a completely different way, I think there are things that I managed to steal from her, even just physically, because a pregnant woman goes through changes, her skin, her hair, her weight change. The film captures that moment, which is very precious because it’s not something that we usually see in a film.
Did the fact that Isabelle Carré was eight months pregnant cause problems during the making of the film?
It was a real risk for the production because the insurers did not want to insure us, so we had to make the film with a very low budget, in HD, with a small crew,, for three weeks over the summer, and we made the rest of the film after she had given birth.
Was it difficult for her psychologically to play a character who is going through a traumatic pregnancy?
Quite the contrary. Isabelle said that she was so completely different from Mousse that there couldn’t be any confusion between what she was experiencing and what her character was going through. The only thing she asked for was that the child she gives birth to at the end of the film should not be a boy because she was going to have a boy in real life and she didn’t want the film to create any confusion later and for her son to think that that was his story. The only scene where we cheated is the one where she dances in the club because she couldn’t do it and we couldn’t take the risk of her being hit in the stomach.
Why did you choose to focus on drug addicts?
I wanted to challenge clichés about drugs. I wanted to show it in a very realistic way, to go against idealised views of it, but also to show the well-being it can give and the love that can exist between two people who take drugs together. It’s a sort of refuge, they live in a closed space, cut off from the world and reality. And Mousse goes from one refuge to another in the film.
How was the film received in France?
Fairly well. But the right-wing press attacked it in a way that we really didn’t expect. The Figaro said that it advocated homosexual adoption. I had to re-read the article several times… If people want to interpret the film in this manner, why not, I have nothing against homosexual adoption, but it was absolutely not the aim of the film! They reacted as if the end of the film was a political message, which was not the case at all. But a film escapes you once you’ve released it, and everybody can interpret it as they wish.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy