Back in the 1980s, the late Michael Powell (1905-1990) expressed the wish that he could have made a silent film -- a movie that would be pure cinema, purely visual, with no dialogue needed to tell its story or express the emotional lives of its characters. Powell got close to this goal with parts of Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann, but never quite achieved it with an entire movie. François Ozon's drama Hideaway (original French title Le Refuge), however, seems to be precisely what Powell was aiming for -- a story so perfectly told with visuals that subtitles are virtually unnecessary for the English-speaking audience and, indeed, the makers could just as easily have lost the audio track without diminishing the movie's expressiveness or impact. The director's efforts to achieve a naturalistic feel -- to the structure, the shooting, and the performances (using the highly talented Isabelle Carré, who was pregnant at the time, in the role of a drug-dependent expectant mother) -- have paid off onscreen with a beguiling, spellbindingly low-key drama that, for all of its harrowing moments, is a wonder to behold and a delight to watch.
The film's opening sequence, depicting the tragic end to a romance between Mousse (Carré) and Louis (Melvil Poupaud) over the use of contaminated drugs, is fairly harrowing in its realism. But once the audience has passed that threshold, it's as though the whole emotional life of the survivor is waiting to be thrown open to us. It is her contact with Louis' brother Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy), who is emotionally detached from his sibling and also gay, that opens the film and the character up, in a manner so quietly realistic that one forgets it's a screenplay we're watching play out. Carré evokes echoes of a young Isabelle Huppert at her best, while Choisy, who is primarily a singer, is what they used to call in Hollywood a "natural." And with some help from Pierre Louis-Calixte in a key supporting role, these players light up the screen for a quietly dazzling 88 minutes, exploring the emotional content of motherhood and parenthood from several angles, some of them generational (there's a twist in the middle that we won't reveal here, which seems to say something about Louis' self-destructive quality and its roots).
Le Refuge is also another strong case for the vitality that foreign filmmaking brings to the United States marketplace (though there are sadly ever-fewer places to see such movies in theaters outside of the larger U.S. cities). It's a story that would have had a difficult time getting made in America, except perhaps for one of the cable channels, without a much more high-profile cast or someone dedicated to excellence behind it. But it also has technical virtues that allow it to transcend anything made in the States for cable; even shot in France, where it is obviously still possible to make theatrical films of this sort, Ozon had to rely on high-definition video rather than 35 mm, and work with a reduced crew, which precluded any elaborate tracking shots or camera setups. The results are still impressive, though -- the shooting in very low light makes for some gorgeous images, seductive in their own right. And the movie, incidentally, is in a true widescreen aspect ratio (2.35:1, equal to Panavision) that fairly leaps off the screen, and yet doesn't conflict with the intimacy of the drama.