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Interview with François Ozon

François Ozon on the  set of The RefugePregnancy
A year ago, an actress friend of mine called to give me some good news: she was pregnant. Two days later, I called her and proposed we do a film inspired by her pregnancy. At first she was delighted, but a week later she pulled out. This was her second child, she knew what she was in for and didn’t feel capable of being both an actress and pregnant.
Disappointed, I was about to scrap the project when my casting director Sarah Teper informed me: «There are three pregnant actresses in Paris right now, and one of them is Isabelle Carré.» My enthusiasm immediately returned. Isabelle’s youthful image was inspiring - she still didn’t quite seem like a grown woman to me. I called her, we met and I told her about the project. She thought it over for two days and said yes.
For ages, I’d dreamt of doing a film with a pregnant actress. I’ve often explored the theme of motherhood, but I’ve never really looked specifically at pregnancy. It was either passed over with an ellipse, briefly illustrated with a fake stomach, or the film began after the child was born.

The script
To start with, I had Isabelle read a three-page treatment outlining the character’s trajectory. Then I wrote the screenplay, seeing her regularly throughout. She was six months pregnant, and I’d ask her to tell me about the emotions and sensations she was experiencing. I had some hunches, but I needed certain concrete details: can you manage this particular movement? What do you eat? How do you get out of bed? What have you been dreaming about? The film is, in part, a documentary about Isabelle. Even though Mousse is very different from her, Isabelle really nourished the story and inspired us.
Isabelle followed the screenplay development closely, and I think she enjoyed it. Since we needed to write quickly, I asked a young screenwriter, Mathieu Hippeau, to help me. I gave him the framework for the scenes and he fleshed them out. He brought a lot of life and tenderness to the dialogue. We got straight to the heart of things, with no filters. The screenplay didn’t pass through the usual stages that tend to create a distance.

The desire to film a pregnant woman
A pregnant woman is fascinating to behold. Her body undergoes a metamorphosis, grows rounder... it’s very attractive, sensual and mysterious. I feel a little bit like the Marie Rivière character, or the man at the café in the film: everyone wants to touch a pregnant woman! I told Isabelle from the start, «I want to eroticize your body, your belly. It needs to be very present, visible. I’m going to film it, caress it, that’s what the film is about.» A new beginning starts through this belly. The relationship between Mousse and Paul takes shape around this belly. It’s the basis for their connection.

Shooting with a pregnant actress
During the preparation period, Isabelle could easily distinguish between herself and the Mousse character. She had no fear of the dialogue or situations. But when we began shooting, it became more difficult. She found herself speaking lines and playing scenes that didn’t jibe with her own personal experience of pregnancy. For example, off camera she was constantly communicating with her baby, touching her stomach or talking to it, while in the film Mousse pays it no mind, she’s pregnant by accident, and she’s keeping the baby mainly as a link to the man she loved and lost. Isabelle is a brilliant actress, very aware of her art, but in this film her physical state brought with it a kind of incertitude, it blurred the lines. She was ultra sensitive and often in a fragile state. Walking along an exposed beach with the wind whipping around her, climbing a dune with eight extra kilos, having to do multiple takes getting up from a chair... She would tire easily and soon found the shoot extremely difficult from a physical standpoint. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to make it to the end, physically or mentally. But I was confident. I knew she was a solid actress.
It’s always very moving for a director to capture a moment when his actress loses control... You sense her emotions getting away from her, she wants to resist but ultimately surrenders and offers you this precious, true and very private piece of herself.

The maternal instinct
In our society, motherhood is highly idealized and associated with extremely positive imagery. I wanted to show that things are often far more complex. The maternal instinct is not a given. Mousse does not experience her pregnancy as a process of procreation. Most of all, it’s a way of accepting Louis’ death, a tool for mourning. Carrying and giving life becomes a way of soothing the pain and injustice of her lover’s death. Mousse’s body is simply a temporary place of passage, the site of a transmission.
Drug addicts who try to kick the habit are often very clear about their emotions and desires. Their sensitivity is heightened. Mousse is lucid about her situation. She doesn’t lie to herself, and in the end she makes a decision that is very honest on a personal level: she’d rather leave than pretend to be a mother.

Mousse
This name imposed itself in a strange way, instinctively and for no particular reason. I liked the way it sounded: sweet and moist. We know nothing about this girl’s past, where she comes from, her family... but the name immediately sets her apart from the classic french names of the other characters, Louis and Paul.

The refuge
The apartment where Mousse and Louis shoot up is a cocoon, a refuge in which they have barricaded themselves. But Mousse is going to have to emerge and confront the real world outside. She is devastated by Louis’ death, and hurt by her mother-in-law’s request that she abort. Ultimately, she leaves the refuge of heroin and finds another refuge, far from the city, close to the ocean and to nature, a place where she will continue to struggle, but will ultimately succeed in making peace with herself. In this place, Mousse opens herself up to moments of serenity and tenderness that she had not allowed herself to feel previously. For me, The Refuge is the story of this healing process, which is violent and painful, but the story is told very gently. It’s also a film about loss and doing without. Doing without drugs. Losing love. Losing someone.
Mousse and Paul are two people with no reason to be together, they never should have met, and yet they will help each other, confide in each other. They are both on the margins, seeking their identities. At the end of the film, they find their place, and freedom. Mousse discovers her ability to make a choice to live and to love, and Paul makes some sense of his past and finds meaning; Mousse’s story has echoed his own.
Mousse’s pain is wide open at the beginning of the film, whereas Paul’s pain reveals itself progressively. I wanted Paul to start off as a secondary character - he’s a simply a «Mamma’s boy» at first - then gradually become more complex and take on an importance we don’t initially expect.

Paul
I didn’t want a professional actor to play Paul, I didn’t want someone who would be acting. I wanted to place a «virgin», someone very pure, opposite an experienced actress like Isabelle. So I did some tests with the singer Louis, who I sensed was very similar to this gentle male character with a secret. I met him at a concert and liked his «tormented soul» sensitivity and his beauty, which he seemed embarrassed about. His fragility as a non-professional actor appealed to me and blended in with the character’s fragility: This was Paul.
Since Louis is first and foremost a singer, I also wanted his voice to be part of the film. He wrote the theme song on set, with the idea that it should be like a lingering perfume, a reminder of his brother’s presence.

Melvil
I immediately thought of Melvil Poupaud, but I had some scruples about calling him: I’d already killed him in TIME TO LEAVE. Now I’d be killing him again, and this time, within the first fifteen minutes of the film! But I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.
He was immediately interested and enthusiastic. He brought his natural charisma and a certain realism to the drug scenes. I knew that eliminating him quickly would leave a void that would make us feel more empathy for Mousse and share her feelings. Like Bruno Crémer in UNDER THE SAND, Melvil didn’t have much time to make his mark on the film and the audience, but I knew that once he was gone, we would miss him.

Shooting in HD
As we had to shoot quickly with a reduced crew, I thought this would be a good time to try out HD. We didn’t really have a choice anyway, the budget excluded 35mm and 16mm. So it was a question of budget for the production, and a new technical reality for me, which I needed to learn fast. As I wanted to capture the beauty of the landscape, the light, the natural surroundings and the actors, I chose cinemascope and long lenses to counteract the flatness of digital images, restore focus options and create depth of field. The biggest advantage of these cameras is their ability to shoot in very low light, with little or no artificial lighting. This allowed me to shoot at magic hours: dawn, dusk, nighttime on a beach...
As we had no grip and couldn’t do any tracking shots, I simplified my shooting script, adopting a certain frontal approach, and I used a zoom, modifying the way the actors moved... We had to keep things simple, always, and move fast, which was actually consistent with the story we were telling. The film’s economy was in harmony with the film itself.

Mousse’s letter
If Paul hadn’t come into her life, Mousse would’ve stayed with her baby. For me, her leaving is not abandonment, it’s transmission. Mousse isn’t running away, she just needs a little more time to become a mother. By leaving her child with Paul, she’s protecting her. She knows Paul will do a better job of looking after her. He’s more ready to be a father than she is to be a mother. I wondered whether I should shoot a scene where Mousse would give the child directly to Paul, to make the transmission concrete, physical. But I felt the letter in voiceover rang truer. When Mousse looks at the camera in the metro, it’s her way of addressing Paul, her daughter and the audience, taking them as witness. Mousse knows she’ll be back some day. She has very strong feelings for Paul, but they will never live together. She loves her child, but she leaves her. I love this paradox of absence: a bond exists without physical presence.
 

THE REFUGE - SONG

Original song by Louis-Ronan Choisy & Isabelle Carré, excerpt from the soundtrack of The Refuge.

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