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With: Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer, Jacques Nolot, Alexandra Stewart
Written by: Emmanuele Bernheim, Francois Ozon, Marcia Romano, Marina de Van
Directed by: Francois Ozon
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English, French with English subtitles
Running Time: 95
Date: 09/11/2000

Under the Sand (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Head in the 'Sand'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Francois Ozon is probably the most ferociously talented French directorunder the age of 40. (His closest competition, Leos Carax, turned 40last year.) Beginning in the early 90's, Ozon fired off a series ofshort films (none of which I've seen) before turning to feature films,all acclaimed, all extraordinary: See the Sea (1997), Sitcom (1999),Criminal Lovers (1999), and Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000). Forthat last film, Ozon was bold enough to take on an old play written byanother brilliant filmmaker, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to Ozon's new work, Under the Sand, featured at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival. But as much as I loved the subversive nature frosting Ozon's other films, I found myself scratching my head after Under the Sand.

Ozon's talent is very much in evidence in Under the Sand, even if it's more subdued -- more "mature" -- than in his previous work. Perhaps I just prefer the wild-eyed, button-pushing Ozon to this more refined one.

Charlotte Rampling, an arthouse icon of the 1960's and 70's with such films as Georgy Girl, The Damned, Zardoz, and The Night Porter under her belt, stars as Marie Drillon, a housewife long grown comfortable with her burly, nearly immobile husband Jean (Bruno Cremer). When they go on their annual summer vacation to their beach house, Jean goes for a swim and never comes back. Marie goes through the usual routine, calling the police, organizing search parties, before giving up and going back home.

I admired these early establishing shots of Marie and Jean together. A lesser filmmaker would have loaded these sequences will tiny, obvious clues that would come into play later. Or worse, tons of expositional dialogue explaining the very nature of their marriage up until that moment. Instead, Ozon shows us a night in bed, reading, and a basic spaghetti dinner. Gorgeous.

After a few months, Marie still imagines Jean to be alive and well and living back at home with her, going so far as to believe that he's paying the bills. Meanwhile she begins to date another man who tries and fails to break through her peculiar shield. (She imagines both men touching her at the same time.) Any time a friend tries to broach the delicate subject, she gets upset and walks away.

When the police find a body in the surf, Marie goes to check it out. She insists that it's not her husband because his watch is not the same, even though the evidence is overwhelmingly against her. Ozon's subsequent final shot is maddeningly ambiguous, and undeservedly so.

I couldn't help thinking how much Alfred Hitchcock or David Lynch could have made out of this simple and intriguing premise. Either one of them would have kept us tingly, off-balance, and wondering -- is Jean really gone? Though Ozon does that to some extent, he seems more interested in looking at the way loss affects Marie's life, and he spends most of the time looking at just the surface. We have no real way of knowing how Marie's mind is working during this terrible time and we just coast on intellectual observations with no suspense or understanding.

I'm not sure if Ozon is to blame for this aggravating surface-skating, or if it's Rampling herself, who strikes me as a mediocre talent with a kind of scrunched-up face that hides its feelings. Could a more arresting or intense actress have conveyed deeper thoughts here (Isabelle Huppert)? Maybe it's just me, as Rampling has already received excellent notices elsewhere for her performance. Or, this might be a case of Ozon turning down the heat a few notches so that the mainstream can catch up to him (which seems to be working). I liked him better before.

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