Under the Sand Movie Review

François Ozon has been busy the last couple of years dickering around with the crude sensationalism of Sitcom and Criminal Lovers, films that resemble biting the heads off chickens. This talented young auteur offers a welcome change of pace from this recent spate of puerile shock-value thrillers with the restrained, quietly haunting character study, Under the Sand. Ozon's latest feature returns to the quietly haunting rigor of his first international success, See the Sea: disturbing, minimalist, perceptive.

Much of the tension in Ozon's best work remains unspoken, or deliberately unexplained. In that spirit, he concocts a delicious mystery in the extended opening sequence as middle aged professor Marie Drillon (Charlotte Rampling, superb as ever) enjoys an annual summer vacation to the south of France with her husband of 25 years, Jean (giant teddy bear Bruno Cremer). They seem a happy couple, comfortable in their silences as they go about the routines of putting their chateau in order, cooking meals, sunbathing on the beach. Jean goes for a swim one day, but to Marie's shock, he never comes back.

What became of her husband? Did he accidentally get caught in an undertow and drown, or was it suicide? Or perhaps he never told her how much he hated her, and just ran away to begin a new life? Rather than deal with these questions, Marie returns to her ordinary habits. Her friends become increasingly concerned when, six months later, she still carries on as if Jean remains a part of her life. With no proof that he's gone forever, she's happy to delude herself. Her relations and colleagues attempt to ignore this unusual behavior, even attempting to set her up with a new beau (sheepish character actor Jacques Nolot, from Nenette and Boni). How long can she go on pretending, and what will she do if Jean is ever found?

Interesting roles for middle-aged women are hard to come by. Charlotte Rampling has been blessed this year to appear as virile, sexually attractive older women in this formidable performance as well as in Jonathan Nossiter's intriguing Signs & Wonders. Marie is not a particularly wonderful person -- she takes her husband for granted and treats her would-be lover like dog shit. But she's smart, graceful, fiercely independent -- and though she's gone a bit too far consoling herself in ghostly dreams, Rampling invests her choices with dignity.

The opening scenes bear a passing resemblance to the striking Dutch psycho-drama The Vanishing, but Ozon quickly slows things down for a meditative, observational character study that fills the 95 minute running time. This is slow, heady stuff that a mainstream audience might find tedious, but Ozon wisely eschews the obtuse art house pretensions of Krzyzstof Kieslowski's Blue (another study in mourning). Ozon may not always reveal every piece of information, but he keeps his narrative clear and precise. At least we know what's being cropped out of the picture.

Ozon depends heavily on Rampling's performance, which carries him through sections of Under the Sand that feel overly repetitive. For all his talents, he remains more comfortable with the short film format, struggling to fill the running time of a feature length story. Still, if Under the Sand is any indication, Ozon is gaining confidence with his low-key parables of cinematic dread. We're looking forward to seeing where this enfant terrible goes next. Those crazy French...

Aka Sous le Sable.

Hands on a French body.


Comments

Under the Sand Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: NR, 2000

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