Tom Geens’s Couple in a Hole begins with a gorgeous, slow shot of a forest at the height of summer, then it delivers its first jolt before the film is two minutes old. Geens’s second film after 2009’s Menteur, Couple in a Hole is his first work outside his native Belgium, shot in France with an international cast predominantly speaking English. It’s a big step forward for him, and yet its chief virtue is that it doesn’t feel like the kind of movie non-Anglophone directors make when they step up to the international stage. In place of the exuberant road-movie sprawl of a Wenders or a Sorrentino, Couple in a Hole takes a small story and tells it with focus, dedication and precision. The result is incredibly gripping.
The titular couple do indeed live in a hole, a marginal lifestyle they seem well-practiced in. The man hunts and gathers, the woman stays in their underground shelter. Any patriarchal implications there are upended by the two leads and the excellent performances they give. He’s Paul Higgins, perhaps most famous as the terrifying Jamie MacDonald from The Thick of It and In the Loop, but nicely underplaying his role as the pragmatic, efficient John. His wife Karen is played by Kate Dickie from Game of Thrones and The Witch, and she’s something else entirely. When the film begins, Karen is so damaged she can barely step outside, and yet she never feels simply vulnerable. Dickie plays her pain as volatile, frightening, incapacitating to her but also potentially dangerous to everyone around her.
At first, these are just impressions that you get. The first ten minutes of Couple in a Hole are so free of any contextual information, viewers may imagine this is a post-apocalyptic movie, or one set in the middle ages. The mystery becomes irresistible when Karen is bitten by a spider and John reluctantly goes to get medication. From here Geens drip-feeds the viewer information at a teasingly gradual pace; first we learn they are in something close to modern times, then we learn they’re in a French-speaking country. The more we learn, the more our curiosity begins to grow about who these people are and why they’re living such a desperate life.
I’ll preserve the film’s secrets, since the central pleasure of the film is waiting for them to unfold. It spoils nothing to say Couple in a Hole is reminiscent of a few recent films – the aforementioned The Witch, in its feel for the fear of isolated lives, and Stephen Fingleton’s recent BAFTA nominee The Survivalist makes similar disturbing use of an apparently pretty, verdant forest location. In its deliberate pace and ominous psychological narrative, the film it reminded me most of is Cameron Bruce Nelson’s festival circuit favourite Some Beasts (still, unaccountably, without a UK distributor). The main difference is that Nelson’s film begins as a story of American frontier self-sufficiency and gradually reveals the dysfunction beneath. Geens, by contrast, is working in a continent without that founding myth. John and Karen’s story is obviously one of personal trauma from the beginning. It’s credit to him and his actors that it remains so tense and fascinating without offering the viewer an obvious connection to the world outside its remote location.
If there is a meaning to Couple in a Hole beyond simply being a tense, disquieting, compelling story – and there doesn’t need to be – it lies in its vision of society as a series of opt-in or opt-out choices. Placed in contemporary Europe, rather than a dismal future, an idealised past or a tradition of American pioneers, John and Karen can be read as homeless. But this isn’t Cathy Come Home. Their position outside society is not the result of social pressure or bad luck, it is something they have done themselves for deep, buried personal reasons, and the pressure weighs heavily on both of them. It is a tough film – its 12 certificate should not be read as a guarantee of an easy watch – yet it contains some cautious hope that human contact can have a salving effect on the isolated.
Credit for the film’s power can be spread around a lot of people – Geens’s tight direction and screenplay, Higgins’s anguished power, Sam Care’s luscious, unhurried cinematography. There are two elements that stand above the rest, though. First is Kate Dickie’s disturbing, deeply felt performance as Karen. Second is the score by Beak>, which mirrors the qualities of the film perfectly; sparse and chilling, yet also a rich, seductive place to wrap yourself up in. Couple in a Hole’s storytelling drive and emotional resonance could easily be the springboard to bigger things for Geens. Evidence suggests, however, that it’s the small things that really fascinate him.