Kate Dickie and Paul Higgins play the titular couple in director Tom Geen’s low-key but inventive study of the effects of grief. From the very beginning, it’s made clear that something unspeakably traumatic has triggered the couple to retreat into what is basically a cave, in a wooded area of the French Pyrenees.
As the film progresses we are drip-fed clues of the tragedy which led to the couple living as they do, and the film is at its most intriguing when we do not have all the facts. The wordless opening few minutes of the film see the couple hunting, cooking and eating a rabbit in the most rudimentary manner possible and sorting animal pelts inside their makeshift home. Were it not for the modern clothes they’re wearing, it could almost be a scene from prehistory. From the outset it’s evident that it’s Dickie’s character Karen who is the more affected of the hermitic pair. In one memorable, bizarre scene her husband John has to coax her out of the ‘hole’ like a scared animal so that she can enjoy a rain shower in the open air with him.
The films main flaw is that the extreme and slightly surreal manner in which the couple (Karen in particular) react to trauma is frankly difficult to believe. They become withdrawn from society to the extent whereby interaction with outsiders terrifies them, and any offer of help from locals is shunned without reason (at least initially). This facet of their situation (the exclusion of all other people) provides the primary tension of the film, as a gulf opens up between John and Karen’s relationship. Karen adheres to this feral coping mechanism with an almost religious fervour and while John initially does the same, his encounters with local people force him to question what they’re doing. Dickie puts in a completely committed and sometimes harrowing performance as the emaciated Karen. Higgins, best known as the blisteringly profane Jamie MacDonald in The Thick of It, proves to be an excellent casting choice as well and manages to convey John as a deeply sympathetic character, even when his moral compass is questionable.
Towards the last third of the film the plot unfortunately fails to retain the intrigue and tension with which it started. Things take a melodramatic turn and the films conclusion aims to be a poetic wrapping up of the narrative, but is frankly more than a little daft and ultimately an unsatisfying end to an otherwise fine film. The score by experimental Bristol trio Beak, while interesting in its own right, feels oddly misplaced and often jars with the pastoral Pyrenees setting. Part noodling guitars and part warbling, Krautrock-inflected synths, with a few exceptions it’s somewhat misjudged tonally. Music aside, the film is somewhat reminiscent of one of the early Dogme 95 manifesto films, given its raw, stripped-back aesthetic and fraught dramatic flourishes.
The extras featured on the Verve Pictures DVD of Couple in a Hole are as follows;
‘Featurette’ – an 11 minute making-of documentary, in which cast and crew members discuss the problems encountered before and during the shoot (including Paul Higgins breaking his leg, which postponed filming for several months)
‘The Forgiveness Project’ – a short promotional film for the charity The Forgiveness Project.
While the central conceit of the film is perhaps a little hard to swallow, Couple in a Hole is immaculately acted and makes for a solidly gripping and novel drama.