For those keen to apply strict generic labels to their viewing choices, Couple in a Hole is a tricky cinematic beast to pin down. This uncertainty suits Belgian writer-director Tom Geens. “I like the idea of constantly wrongfooting people and making them feel as if they’re in some sort of storyline and then it turns out to be something totally different.”
“Most people will think it’s an apocalyptic story in the beginning and then it slowly turns into a grief/trauma type story. Then it almost goes into a buddy romance story and then when they all become very friendly with each other, they become violent again and it becomes like a thriller.”
The eponymous pair are John (Paul Higgins) and Karen (Kate Dickie), a middle-class husband and wife recovering from a tragic familial event. Seemingly alone in the wilderness, John forages for the couple’s food and Karen mainly stays in a cave, dirty but seemingly safe.
With his second feature (after 2009’s Menteur), also his first in the English language, Geens has created an endearingly strange but distinctive and often beautiful tale that tackles loss, love, faith and even a touch of magical realism without any obvious progenitors, even if the look and theme evoke a few canonical greats. Sam Care’s stunning cinematography (the bulk of the film was shot in the Pyrenees, with the ‘hole’ scenes captured at Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire) at times recalls Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky, while there’s a touch of Werner Herzog in the man-versus-nature backdrop.
Joining us in a bustling Soho coffee shop to reflect on the films that helped inspire the mood and look of Couple in a Hole, Geens is affable company, lingering to debate the merits of now-gentrified Walthamstow – the London neighbourhood he has lived in for more than 10 years – when the interview is over.
Tropical Malady (2004)
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Tropical Malady is about this army guy who has a post in a small village for the first half of the story. Then suddenly you’re in something else, which uses the same actors. The second half is all about this guy who goes to look for a man in the forest and it turns out this boy is some kind of tiger, almost like the spirit of the forest. It was a very interesting way of capturing a forest; it made the forest really alive and quite threatening but also really beautiful at the same time. I’ve never seen that peculiar atmosphere anywhere else.
The way he brought the forest to life was very uncomfortable but at the same time it sucked you in. I liked that and it stuck in my mind. I thought that’s a nice relationship to have with nature.
I guess something of that rubbed off in Couple in a Hole in the sense that they are traumatised people who wander through the forest and they’re in a halfway house, not in civilisation. They really are living in their heads. It becomes almost as if they are ghosts of themselves.
Come and See (1985)
Director: Elem Klimov
The film that had a massive impact on the ghostly appearance of my couple, and the sense that they’re not really in one or other world, was Come and See by Elem Klimov.
It was very simple, beautifully done by just performances and not really big mise-en-scène and all of that stuff. What struck the most is how you can still go into survival mode when you’re in a state of trauma.
And with these two kids, especially the boy, he just keeps piling up the traumas. He goes from trauma to trauma to trauma. The boy basically loses his hearing, then he loses his family and he has this whole scene where the Germans kill all these people in the church. There’s also this strange magical realistic element with all these animals. There’s this really strange monkey in there. It’s fantastic. It’s almost like some kind of Hieronymus Bosch painting. It’s fucking crazy. It feels like a true representation of life and, ultimately, the madness of humanity. I felt that was a massive inspiration in the display of trauma and how you can still continue.
The Son (2002)
Directors: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
For me The Son is like a work of art. The way the Dardennes set off expectations in characters, and frustrations, and also tragedy. The Son is all about this family who lost a son because of another kid and then they discover the kid is actually going to [join the father’s] carpentry course. He becomes obsessed with this kid and the way he observes.
The Dardennes are so brilliant at showing without talking. There’s hardly any dialogue in the whole film and it’s just about one character observing another. That’s been a massive influence because in Couple in a Hole there’s hardly any [dialogue] and that must have rubbed off on me – the craft of creating tension without a plot that comes purely out of characters, characters who are not talking but just in their natural state. Just watching, observing and setting up motivations and different desires in all of the characters. They are on a collision course and that’s what is very beautiful about the Dardennes. It’s almost like poetry. That’s definitely been a massive influence.
Modern Life (2008)
Director: Raymond Depardon
A film that was really important for me purely for the look, the art direction and some of the honesty of the depiction of farmers’ lives in France was a film called Modern Life by Raymond Depardon. It’s a documentary that talks about this whole dying out of agricultural life in France. Basically the countryside is becoming more and more evacuated. It’s very sad but also it’s just very honest. It’s not like your normal sort of talking heads [documentary], it’s all set in the environment. It’s fascinating. It’s moving in many ways, purely because it is so honest. I got a lot from that. It was a real insight into farmers’ lives.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974)
Director: Werner Herzog
I love the way Herzog depicts this. It’s all about a man who has been locked up all his life and gets released. He can’t talk, he can’t do anything and he’s like some kind of idiot savant. There was something about the way the character becomes part of a study. People, almost in a laboratory style, look at this guy and try to teach him language. There was something about that wildness. The big theme in Couple in a Hole is that it’s all about the animal that’s inside that’s never far away; we can go from really civilised to absolutely brutal and animalistic.
The way Herzog was observing and bringing this character into the picture, there was always a distance to it. It’s almost letting the audience themselves decide. He gives it a lot of space and time. There’s something quite nostalgic about it; it almost became a fable and I think that was an interesting way to see how he makes something feel like a fable.
Silent Light (2007)
Director: Carlos Reygadas
It’s a film about Mennonites, a religious group, sort of like Amish people, based in Mexico.
And it’s all about this family, a very rural agricultural family of farmers where the man is very religious. So this man has an affair with another woman and it’s just him dealing with this inability to be able to tell his wife his deepest secrets and the fact that they’re obviously not used to communicating about emotions. They are very closed entities and the way that these emotions come out is beautifully done – that whole process of him dealing with his guilt and his loneliness. For me it’s a very strong film that’s very inspirational.
Ultimately, Paul, the main character in Couple in a Hole, does betray his wife with another man, friendship-wise, and there is a sort of religious homelife existing between John and Karen very strongly held up by Karen. It’s like a sacrilege if you speak to someone else.
Couple in a Hole was backed by the BFI Film Fund.
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