A French angst-fest mostly redeemed by Charlotte Rampling’s nuanced portrait of a woman unhinged
François Ozon’s latest film will come as a bit of a shock to seasoned Ozon watchers, if indeed there are such people for a 34-year-old director who’s made only a handful of films. Ozon made a splash in his first few films, seemingly intentionally, to provoke audiences with outre and disturbing images. In Sitcom (1999) a faux-Bunuel study of the comic terrors of bourgeois life, a family is tormented, and eventually transformed, by the alleged appearance of a rat. Criminal Lovers (1999) transforms Hansel and Gretel into a murder ‘n sex slacker melodrama. Water Drops on Burning Rocks (1999), a spare, dire study in queer sexual politics, linked Ozon to an earlier, and perhaps more terrible, enfant terrible, R. W. Fassbinder, whose play was the source of the film. This crazy trajectory takes another odd turn with Under the Sand, aka Sous le Sable (2000). This is, of all things, a serious, if sometimes agonizingly slow, narrative about a woman’s breakdown after the disappearance of her husband.
Charlotte Rampling plays Marie Drillon, a fiftyish and still fetching teacher off on her yearly holiday with husband Jean (Bruno Cremer) at a country house near the beach. There’s little to indicate anything amiss. The two go about their business quietly, methodically, seemingly so comfortable in their relationship that words – of which there are few in these early scenes – are unnecessary. But Ozon tosses in a few clues that all is not quite right without actually saying so. Jean seems slightly disengaged, moving through his day too quietly. When the two go to the beach, the camera lingers on close-ups of Jean staring at the water while Marie relaxes next to him. She goes to sleep; Jean goes in the water for a swim and vanishes. A panicky Marie engages the police in a search, and they eventually discover his drowned body. But Marie is having none of it. She spends the rest of the film denying his death, hallucinating appearances by him, talking with him, and causing considerable anguish to her friends, who are alarmed at her inability to “get over it.”
Marie’s grim existence of denial and hallucination is reflected in one of the film’s recurring motifs, Virginia Woolf. Woolf acts as a sort of spiritual godmother to Marie and to the quietly terrifying world of the film. Marie is teaching Woolf’s novel The Waves to her class, but stumbles as a quote she’s reading suddenly makes her loss real. She recites Woolf’s suicide note from memory to a simpatico publisher she’s dating. Like Woolf, Marie “hears voices”; and like the novelist, Jean committed suicide by drowning.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a film dominated by the spirit of Virginia Woolf, much of the pacing here is slow to the point of torpor. Still, Ozon sometimes delivers, justifying his reputation as a filmmaker to watch. One scene that shows his chops is a casually cruel encounter between Marie and Jean’s mother, who accuses her of being the cause of Jean’s “disappearance” (Marie isn’t the only delusional character here). Another is the viewing of Jean’s decomposed body, which Marie insists on doing. The combination of the coroner’s clinical rendering of her husband’s “putrefaction” and Marie’s dizzied expression as she observes the body from the supposed safety of a mask bring the sense of a disordered, lethally unpredictable world to the fore.
Ozon based this film on a personal experience at a beach when he was a child. “Every day … we would meet a Dutch couple in their sixties. One day, the man went for a swim and never came back…. It was a shock for me and my family.” This traumatic event, really an anecdote, is stretched a bit thin over the course of Under the Sand’s95-minute running time. Lacking dramatic punch, the film depends mostly on Rampling’s rendering of the inner torment of a woman who has depended entirely on her husband for a sense of her existence. This actress, who’s used to baring her soul in her roles (e.g., The Night Porter), is an ideal choice here, the best that Ozon could hope for, in keeping the audience interested by gesture, look, and phrase in this rather anemic story. Rampling brings to life what underlies Marie’s frozen, slightly nervous and unconvincing smile as she sinks deeper into her fantasy that her husband’s not dead. She has the quietly crazed look of an automaton. Even making love to the new man in her life, the publisher Vincent (Jacques Nolot), does little to distract her. (Indeed, she seems slightly unhinged at her own “infidelity.”) While the film’s slow pace and lack of dramatic incident will induce a reverie in some viewers, Rampling makes it worth staying awake.