Sometimes an even greater mystery than why someone chose to create a particular movie is why someone else chose to fund it. Both questions exert a greater fascination than anything onscreen by the end of “Couple in a Hole,” Belgian writer-helmer Tom Geens’ second feature. This initially intriguing drama centers around the odd conceit of two grieving Scottish parents who find themselves living in a French forest crawlspace near where their only child died. Bizarre yet literal-minded pic gradually goes out on a limb too far as the scenario moves from leisurely and enigmatic to exasperating and random. Commercial prospects for this befuddling, eventually ridiculous endeavor look remote.
It takes some time to figure out just what John (Paul Higgins) and Karen (Kate Dickie) are doing squatting beneath a dead tree in the mountains of Midi-Pyrenees. We eventually suss that they were living abroad when a fire destroyed their home and took the life of their young son. Still in a traumatized state months later, Karen can’t bear to leave the area, though it would seem there are easier ways to do just that than camping rough, foraging and trapping wild animals for food (the couple apparently don’t lack funds).
The two scrupulously avoid all other human contact; Karen has even managed to develop agoraphobia without benefit of an actual house to enclose herself in. But when she’s bitten by a poisonous spider, John is forced to visit the nearest village, where passer-by Andre (Jerome Kircher) helps him get the needed medicine. Though initially hostile toward further contact, John gradually accepts Good Samaritan Andre’s overtures of friendship, though neither man really speaks the other’s language.
When Karen discovers this supposed betrayal of their isolated vigil, however, there will be consequences — overblown, silly ones, which seem especially discordant coming in an unconvincing rush after the methodically slow, spare buildup.
Skillful thesps on tap (also including Corinne Masiero as Andre’s no-nonsense wife Celine) are committed, with Dickie (of “Red Road” and “Game of Thrones”) in particular clearly having made the skin-and-bones physical transformation to play someone who’s had months of significant dietary deprivation. But while Geens’ premise seems a bit fantastical — he’s said his starting point was simply the incongruous image of a normally dressed middle-class couple living in a dirt hole — his execution is all too straightforward and lacking the worked-out psychological nuances that might have made such a conceptual leap credible. Nor do the characters deepen to ballast later developments, which include melodramatic appearances by a shotgun and a wild boar.
Adding to the general disconnect between fuzzy intentions and dubious results is a score of mostly instrumental songs by U.K. indie band BEAK> that at first seems an arrestingly odd textural choice, then just becomes self-defeatingly odd. Pic’s one real pleasure is Sam Care’s widescreen lensing of the spectacular countryside. Other tech and design contributions are pro.