Director Tom Geens on Couple in a Hole
Tom Geens tells us about the tightrope he had to walk getting his moving film debut Couple in a Hole to the screen.
The plot of the debut feature from Belgian filmmaker Tom Geens doesn’t need a whole lot of explanation. Like Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped or, if you prefer a more disreputable example, Snakes on a Plane, all you need to know is in the title. It’s about a couple. And they’re in a hole – literally and figuratively.
“It started in my notebook with just one paragraph describing this image of a middle-class couple stuck in a hole,” explains Geens as we sit down to discuss the film ahead of its Scottish premiere at Glasgow Film Festival. It was the contrast of the image that intrigued him most. “I like that mix of chaos and order, civilisation and nature. It’s a theme that keeps coming back, the animal in all of us, and however civilised, ordered and polite we are to each other, there’s still a wild animal lurking inside all of us.”
Despite the simplicity of its premise, it’s taken Geens over five years to get his film to the screen. But as he describes his path towards filmmaking, it’s clear he’s not one for taking the most straightforward routes in life. Initially he studied economics (Actually, he studied it twice: once in French, once in Flemish). He then inched towards the arts with a postgrad in cultural studies. “I sold it to my parents as gallery management, a sort of a bridge between economy and culture,” he says, “but it ended up a very hardcore course in experimental theatre, because the theatre scene in Belgium was amazing at the time, and still is.”
Tom Geens and star Kate Dickie discuss Couple in a Hole at Glasgow Film Festival
This gave him a taste for acting, and he set his sights on the stage. His parents soon vetoed that idea, however. “In Belgium lots of things are decided by family, so your parents still have a massive authority, unlike in the UK. When they said, ‘No, we’re not going to help you become an actor,’ I thought to myself, ‘OK, what is the other career that’s creative but also involves commerce?’”
The answer he came up with was that grubby collision of movie-making and money-making: advertising. That’s how he ended up moving to London, in 1993, but this only fueled his ardor for theatre. “London was an amazing opening of everything for me,” he says. “Whatever you wanted to do you could do it at a reasonable cost.” How times have changed. “There were all these part-time drama courses,” he explains, “which is how I got involved with writing.”
He was happy, for a time, writing ad copy and plugging away in London’s theatre scene, but then, in 1998, Geens saw one film that changed everything: Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. “I saw Festen and I ran out of the cinema thinking, ‘I’ve got to get a fucking camera,’” he recalls. “And I just started doing stuff myself. That film created such a lot of buzz among a lot of people to just go and do stuff. I was totally blown away by the whole Dogme 95 movement.”
Several commercials and award-winning short films later and we have Couple in a Hole, but the film doesn’t look a whole lot like a Dogme 95 film: its images are crisp and sharply composed, while the set-up is strange, bordering on absurd. A Scottish couple, played by a bearded Paul Higgins and a whippet-thin Kate Dickie, have gone feral. He’s running around a wood in France snaring rabbits and digging up worms for tea, while she seems to be in hibernation mode, refusing to leave the den they’re living in. “It does start in quite a surreal, crazy, Samuel Beckett-type place,” admits Geens, “but by writing it became more and more real ultimately, and I wanted to make it totally believable.”
What the film does have in common with Dogme 95 is that it was created around countless constraints, although in this case due to the myriad obstructions a low-budget indie filmmaker has to maneuver around rather than any self-imposed manifesto. “You are at the mercy of so many decisions outwith your control – especially with something like this where you have to spend five years convincing people to get behind you,’ explains Geens. “The production really throws stuff at you and you just have to deal with it because you have no other choice.”
For example, financing dictated Couple in a Hole should star Scottish actors and be set in France. “At first I was really antagonistic towards the idea of France because I wanted it to be really wild, like one of those huge Eastern European forests.” But he soon mellowed to the idea of setting it in a tamer, on-your-doorstep kind of wilderness. “It’s like going to an Ikea car park and finding a middle-aged couple living in the bin or something.” He eventually embraced the restrictions: “When you have too much power, it kills creativity in many ways, for me at least. When people keep throwing you obstacles it makes you think more about the story, and it often turns the story on its head, by which it becomes a lot more interesting.”
Couple in a Hole versus genre
Slowly the mystery of why the eponymous couple are living in their hole becomes clear, by which point the film has taken on several different guises. “What became very interesting about the whole structure is that it gave me the opportunity to wrongfoot people all the time” says Geens. “It goes through a whole mix of genres, it never really sits with one thing. In the beginning I think a lot of people think, ‘Is this some sort of apocalyptic horror film? Or is this like a 19th century survival story?’” It soon becomes clear that it’s neither, and instead a deeply moving study of grief.
The score, by British band BEAK>, is similarly wrongfooting. “The music is jarring,” explains Geens. “You probably would expect some kind of lovely, classical music – a beautiful Bach piece with gravitas or something. But when I heard this lo-fi electronica, almost krautrock, I thought, ‘Wow, this will really add another dimension to the film.’” He reckons this type of music allows the viewing experience to become much more subjective. ‘“When you have music that compliments the images, it’s more about what you see,” he explains, “whereas with this it’s like you’re inside someone’s head. I think it became very much a soundtrack for [Paul Higgins’s character] John’s state of mind.”
The whole film feels like a tightrope walk, and Geens and his cast's go-for-broke commitment to the material is what makes the film so powerful. The director was apprehensive as to whether he could pull it off. “There was a real worry all the way through the writing that audiences would find the setup almost stupid, because if you don’t get people with you from the start the whole film falls flat on its face.” The experience was also thrilling, however. “I kind of like the fact that you are treading that fine line between it totally bombing or getting away with it.”
Couple in a Hole is on limited release in the UK now from Verve Pictures