UNDER THE SAND

Written and directed by François Ozon

With Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer and Jacques Nolot

Distributed by WinStar Cinema

***1/2



Even before François Ozon made a feature, his potential for greatness was apparent.  His 53-minute  SEE THE SEA, released in the U.S. with his fine short A SUMMER DRESS, was an elegantly brutal miniature of tremendous promise, condensing the European thriller (a la Polanski and Chabrol) down to a core of raw terror and emotion.  Over Ozon's next 3 films, this potential seemed to dissipate in a haze of enfant terrible posturing and attempts to speak in other filmmakers' voices. Returning to the minimalist framework of SEE THE SEA, UNDER THE SAND re-affirms Ozon's range and talent. The only direct connections between them - a British woman in the lead,  the seaside setting, an air of austerity  - are pretty superficial, but the two feel as though they could have been made right after each other. Analyzing a young director's work in an auteurist framework - even if he's as prolific as Ozon - may be a fool's game, but UNDER THE SAND suggests that he's back on the right track. It's a film I never expected him to make, at least not for a decade or two: an utterly compassionate, humanist examination of aging, grief and mortality.

The sensibility of Ozon's first three features - SITCOM, WATER DROPS ON BURNING ROCKS and CRIMINAL LOVERS - fascinated me more than the films themselves, because they made the casual sexual fluidity often implicit in French culture (take Catherine Corsini's otherwise forgettable comedy THE NEW EVE, in which Sergi Lopez blithely describes being fucked by a man) into their subject matter. While identity politics are notoriously unfashionable in France, Ozon's work comes closer to continuing the provocative agenda of the best American New Queer Cinema than  Todd Haynes and Gregg Araki have. At worst (which, for me,  would be the fairy tale/BONNIE & CLYDE hybrid CRIMINAL LOVERS), he's  a bit too proud of being such a naughty boy. The subtler his provocations get, the deeper they cut. There's no queer content in UNDER THE SAND whatsoever - not even the hint of a lesbian subtext in  SEE THE SEA - but implicitly, it's just as critical of conventional notions about marriage as SITCOM, his John Waters homage.

The first time we see Jean (Cremer), he's dozing in a car, on the way with his wife Marie (Rampling), an English professor, to their summer cottage in the woods. Ozon establishes the couple's relationship through  brief scenes of daily life, rather than any memorable dialogue or plot events, but he establishes their intimacy deftly through these rituals. When Jean and Marie head to the beach, she decides to take a nap. Upon waking up, Jean is nowhere to be found. She combs the beach for him, without finding any sight of him. Presumably, he either  ran off or drowned, but she refuses to believe that he could be dead, even after returning home to Paris. (The portions set in  summer and winter were shot by different cinematographers - the former on 35 mm film, the latter on Super 16 - and Ozon wrote the script for the second half after shooting the first.) She tries to adjust to life without him, even having an "affair" with Vincent (Nolot), but loneliness drives her to hallucinate  his presence.

Stylistically, UNDER THE SAND takes its cues from 60s European art cinema, down to its relentless ambiguity and indecisive conclusion. (Of course, its premise recalls both Antonioni's L'AVVENTURA and Hirokazu Kore-eda's MABOROSI.) However, Ozon crosses these influences with touches borrowed from genre films. As in SEE THE SEA, he establishes a tense mood long before anything terrible happens: the first reel feels like the beginning of a horror film. Through Jean's half-life in Marie's imagination, it becomes a ghost story. Like many Antonioni films, L'AVVENTURA starts out as a mystery, but its disappearance becomes a McGuffin, standing in for a much wider spiritual vacuum. By contrast, the specific implications of disappearance for Jean and Marie's marriage are the heart and soul of UNDER THE SAND.

In Johan van der Keuken's THE LONG HOLIDAY (an auto-elegy, made as the Dutch director was suffering from the prostate cancer that killed him last January), he remarked that having a potentially terminal illness made him feel like he rested on the boundaries between the living and dead. Marie's own life is never in danger (except maybe at her own hand), but the loss of Jean has much the same effect on her, dissolving the borders between dreams and life. Jean  constantly re-appears in her apartment, as a surprisingly physical - and downright erotic - presence. The images that haunt her populate the film's sets, from the fish tank behind Marie and Vincent at a restaurant to the jars of pickled body parts in fluid at a coroner's office. Even the Seine seems interchangeable with the beach where he vanished.

Marie and Vincent  are the only two real characters in UNDER THE SAND. Jean is seen almost entirely through Marie's after-the-fact perceptions of him. As French critic Patrice Blouin suggests,  he "is already this massive and silent body, this zombie, who will reappear unchanged in the big Parisian apartment" well before he disappears.  There's also relatively little narrative, just a slow tracking of the consequences of Marie's delusion that she's still living with Jean.  (Ozon makes a suspenseful Hitchockian set piece out of her response to a phone call placed to his locked office.) He doesn't pretend to know everything about what Marie's going through, but he leaves room for Rampling to fill in the blanks around emotions his screenplay only suggests. UNDER THE SAND is distant - if played for melodrama, it would likely be unbearably maudlin - but never cold.  Rampling hasn't had such a grand showcase in years. Her performance combines a stereotypically English facade of repressed emotion (she's reluctant to reveal herself in public, letting Virginia Woolf's words speak for her) with an undercurrent of seething anxiety. Nevertheless, her vulnerability never trumps her dignity. Unlike the protagonists of Polanski films like REPULSION and THE TENANT, she never crosses the edge into  dangerous madness.

UNDER THE SAND is   simple,  not  simplistic . Rather than a straightforward story of grief and gradual recovery, it's up to something more enigmatic. In death, Jean becomes a talisman, rather than a person with his own agenda and secrets. His shadow is rather comforting to Marie, and the possibility that he's still alive fuels her fantasies, rather than her desire to find out what really happened to him. (When the police  let her know that a body matching Jean's description has been found, she delays calling them back as long as she can stand.) If he could be transformed  so easily into a ghost, how well did she really know him in life?
It takes a series of shocks - clues with contradictory implications - to rouse her into action. For Ozon, like Takeshi Kitano, the beach is an arena where play  easily melts into death, and only by seeing the sea again can she find catharsis. Both she and the director benefit from coming full circle.