Film Reviews


By • May 4th, 2001 •

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95 minutes; in French with English subtitles

Under the Sand is an exercise in minimalism that teeters on the edge of self-parody, despite a few striking scenes. Less a conventional story than a mood piece, it deals with loss, grief and death in a way that’s unique but that also keeps the audience at a distance emotionally.

What keeps the film anchored-for the most part-is a lovely, controlled performance by Charlotte Rampling. Still lithe and sexy years after Georgy Girl (she was Lynn Redgrave’s slutty roommate), Rampling plays Marie Drillon, long married to Jean (Bruno Cremer). The childless, Paris-based couple are off to the French countryside for a little R&R, and the opening scenes convey the mix of hopefulness and exhaustion that often marks the start of a vacation.

Marie and Jean seem content if not notably sexy or loving, so it’s hard to even guess what’s happened when Jean goes for a swim in the pounding surf and fails to return. An accident? A Star is Born-style suicide? Runaway husband? There’s no shortage of ambiguity, here and right up through the final, enigmatic scene.

These first 10-15 minutes are among the most effective parts of Under the Sand, as Rampling and director/co-writer François Ozon take us through all Marie’s reactions-concern, panic, frustration, loneliness and the hundred little humiliations of dealing with petty officialdom.

The tension generated here is dissipated, however, during the film’s mid-section. Six months have passed, and Marie has returned to Paris and seemingly gotten on with her life. But guess who is having a bit of a problem with reality? Marie is having a hard time letting go. She refers to her husband in the present tense to concerned friends, who, in the best tradition of daytime soaps, exchange worried glances with each other when she does so.

Marie-and the audience-also see the husband hanging around the apartment, and she has several conversations with him. Marie is toying with how to deal with her loss-some of the conversations with Jean are banal and everyday, but she also discusses a romance she’s considering with Vincent (Jacques Nolot). Presumably, even in Paris, a wife doesn’t calmly discuss her new boyfriend with her husband.

In fact, one of the film’s most strikingly sexy scenes is a kind of ménage à trois, but featuring only two pairs of men’s hands stroking and kneading different parts of Rampling’s body. Ozon effectively interweaves masturbatory fantasy and reality, as Marie explores not just the grief of losing a loved one but the freedom and possibilities that such a loss offers.

Ozon knows he has something special in Rampling, and he shapes the entire film around her (she’s in virtually every scene). She uses her eyes especially well, often refusing to focus on those she’s speaking to and almost pleading to be believed. And appropriately for a film that’s about a woman whose loss makes her retreat into her own world, we see everything through her experience. This can be thrilling in a few scenes, especially when the “real world” collides with Marie’s self-protective shell.

Ozon’s minimalism also makes one of the few scenes with dramatic fireworks-Marie’s confrontation with her mother-in-law after she begins to suspect that Jean had committed suicide-satisfyingly bitchy.

Mostly, though, I found myself wishing some of the film’s other characters had shaken Marie, given her a Cher/Moonstruck slap and said “Snap out of it!” All the water imagery, carefully worked out reflections and deliberate ambiguity start to seem contrived and pretentious rather than mysterious and disturbing.

The film, and Rampling’s performance, are also oddly unemotional at times. The script skips over the times when her character would have indulged in tears and conventional “scenes.” But it’s more than that: Ozon wants the audience to identify with Marie, but also to view her with detachment. Perhaps he’s commenting on our own self-protective measures-the distance that each of us needs to establish when confronting anguish and loss.

Under the Sand works as a showcase for Rampling, if not a totally effective film. And if you’re dealing with a recent or painful death or divorce and need someone to identify with, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone else who can look so good while going just a bit mad.

Directed by François Ozon
Written by François Ozon, with Emmanuèle Bernheim, Marina de Van, Marcia Romano

Charlotte Rampling, with Bruno Cremer, Jacques Nolot and Alexandra Stewart

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