Woman on the verge
Naked German tourists appear suddenly on a beach. A woman laughs out loud during sex because she is used to a heavier mate. A Frenchman blows smoke out his nose (in the way only the French seem to know how to do in movies) without making audiences laugh. The camera peers through a restaurant’s fish-filled aquarium at a couple eating supper in a sort of My Dinner With Angelfish moment. François Ozon’s Under the Sand is not without striking and dreamlike images.
Still, it’s what we don’t see—what goes on inside the head of a middle-aged female university professor—that makes this methodical, meditative drama about grief and denial so seductive. We drop into the lives of Marie (British actress Charlotte Rampling) and Jean (Bruno Cremer) Drillon during their 25th year of marriage. Their life together feels almost too comfortable and ordinary for its own good. Even a vacation unfolds more like a seasonal routine than a rejuvenating escape. There’s an obvious tenderness to their relationship but also an ambiguity: a sense of familiarity that is soothing but not necessarily a sign of urgent intimacy.
The couple settles rather uneventfully into a country house. During a trip to the beach, Marie buries herself in a book and naps while her burly husband goes off for a swim. He never returns. Marie enlists the aid of the local officials, but searches by lifeguards and a helicopter are futile. There are no witnesses, let alone a body, so Marie must return home in a state of emotional limbo. Eventually Jean returns—sort of—and Ozon makes us wonder if he is an apparition of sorts or a figment of Marie’s overtaxed imagination.
Rampling, now 55 years old, first broke into the limelight with The Knack … and How to Get It and Georgy Girl in the 1960s. Here, she is a revelation as the literature professor who reads Virginia Woolf’s The Waves aloud to her class, returns home to a vision of her possibly drowned hubby and attends functions where she talks about him in the present tense ("Don’t worry,” she tells her attorney when money problems arise. “I’ll talk to him, to Jean. He travels a lot.").
Rampling strikes a blow against ageism by integrating credible sexual tension into the story and eroticism into her nude scenes. Her strength and vulnerability, sadness and playful naughtiness, and intelligence and contiguous madness alternately seep from her eyes as she has an affair with a suitor while continuing to buy ties for Jean during shopping sprees.
Cremer, a French TV movie star who appeared in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, contributes memorable physical presence as the AWOL spouse whose widened girth and bedside reading habits hint at a marital passion softened by time. Andree Tainsy has a brief but pivotal role as Jean’s mother, who opens up a Pandora’s Box of issues and squabbles with her daughter-in-law. Alexandra Stewart plays the close friend who tries to get Marie to see a psychiatrist and Jacques Nolot is the beau who asks the wrong question at the wrong time ("You want the truth, says Marie. “You don’t measure up.").
Philippe Rombi’s score, a melancholy piano and interludes of Mahler and Chopin, gives the film a compassionate resonance. The soundtrack feels like it may be playing in Marie’s head as well as over the theater sound system. On the downside, the subtitles disappear into the French surf like Jean himself and other light backgrounds, and the film is permeated by a cool detachment from all its characters.
Under the Sand was inspired by a memory from Ozon’s childhood in which a Dutch woman faced the same dilemma as Marie. His lingering curiosity about how that woman coped has been turned into an economic, serene portrait of deep inner conflict. Anyone demanding emotional or dramatic closure from his or her films should search elsewhere. There is no final dance between lonely lady and deceased husband to a Righteous Brothers ballad. Sand has much more up its sleeve than a snug ending.