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A literalization of one couple’s pit of despair that disturbingly depicts how grief can make us less than human, Tom Geens‘s Couple in a Hole presents a man and woman who, after the death of their son, reject the society of others and civilization’s comforts for a barely sustainable life in the woods. Haunted performances draw viewers into this pained tableau, while peripheral action offers a slow sense of discovery to balance the oppressive mood. The unshowy but extremely effective British import may have trouble attracting attention at a packed event like TIFF, but should build a following on the fest circuit and is well deserving of an arthouse run in the States.
For twenty minutes, we might well be watching survivors of an apocalypse: John (Paul Higgins) hunts small animals with his bare hands in the woods, bringing food back to Karen (Kate Dickie), who tends to domestic chores in a tiny cave she seems too traumatized to leave for more than a minute at a time. But when she is bitten by a nasty spider, John ventures into a nearby town where no cataclysm has struck. Warily, he gets medicine from Andre (Jerome Kircher), who is happy to help. “We like you,” he says soothingly as he refuses payment, suggesting that at least some locals know about their hermit neighbors.
Gradually we come to understand that this bleak subsistence is self-imposed, a sackcloth-and-ashes-like response to the couple’s loss, a deal they have made with each other. But Karen seems to see no end to it, while John is more hopeful. Though he angrily rebuffs Andre’s subsequent offers of food, the two eventually strike up a cautious friendship that he hides from Karen.
Geens parcels out enough scraps of detail to make the film feel like something of an unfolding mystery, but he’s equally concerned with examining the disparity of grief here. Even in solitude, John’s world is expansive — a quiet, verdant place bathed in fog — while Karen’s is enclosed, obsessive, and frightened. (Sam Care photographs both environments beautifully.) For every bit of humor or warmth the film allows in the time John spends with his new companion, thoughtful viewers will intuit a corresponding drop of poison in his marriage. Dickie’s fierce, almost feral performance makes us understand that, while the title suggests human beings who are stuck someplace they need to be rescued from, Karen may in fact be an animal holed up in a lair she will fight tooth and nail not to leave.
Production companies: 011 Productions Ltd., The Chicken Factory Ltd., A Private Vie, Les Enrages
Cast: Paul Higgins, Kate Dickie, Jerome Kircher, Corine Massiero
Director-Screenwriter: Tom Geens
Producer: Zorana Piggott
Executive producers: Lizzie Francke, Cavan Ash, Colette Delaney-Smith
Director of photography: Sam Care
Production designer: Richard Campling
Costume designer: Angela Billows
Editor: Alain Dessauvage
Casting director: Rosalie Clayton
No rating, 104 minutes
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