Under The Sand (Sous le sable)
France (2000) Dir. François Ozon
When you read a plot synopsis and then notice the name of the film’s director, there are occasions where this association will elicit feelings of trepidation. This is not a case of say, Lars von Trier doing romantic comedy, but French provocateur François Ozon exploring the subject of grief does suggest a challenging tale awaits.
English lecturer Marie Drillon (Charlotte Rampling) and husband Jean (Bruno Cremer) have been happily married for 25 years. During their summer break at their holiday home in Lit et Mix, in the southwest of France, Jean goes for a swim in the sea while Marie sleeps on the beach. When she awakes there is no sign of Jean anywhere and the coast guards can’t find him either.
As a body has not been recovered and no plausible explanation as to why he might disappear, Marie refuses to believe her husband is dead and carries on imagining Jean is still with her, talking about him to friends in the present tense and fantasising about him while dating other men. Then Marie gets the phone call from the police in Lit et Mix she has been dreading.
Just to clarify I wasn’t being critical of Ozon as a director in the opening paragraph as I am a fan of his work. Pertaining to Under The Sand, it was made during the period when his films were provocative and dark, and with the disturbing Regarde la mer in mind, let’s just say there was a concern lightening might strike twice.
Thankfully that wasn’t the case at all. Although a bleak film suffused with a pervasive air of melancholy, Ozon doesn’t delve too deep into the darkest reaches of the human psyche in exploring Marie’s decent into self-imposed denial, presenting her as a tragic figure unable to admit her world has just been torn asunder.
It’s easy to think of Marie as crazy or just plain stubborn but the reality is her love for Jean was simply too strong to let go. One gets the impression Marie might have already feared the worst but accepting it is a different matter and that is the folly of the cruel hold her emotions have on her. Then again, Jean’s quiet and dour demeanour leads us to wonder if he isn’t in fact deeply unhappy and perhaps a little hen pecked.
Not that Marie is a ball-crushing fishwife, far from it, but the fact she is driving the car in the opening scene could imply there are more than one pair of trousers being worn in their household. In a later scene of Marie at her day job as English literature lecturer, her teen class are quiet and wholly attentive, Marie standing at the head of the class room with a palpable aura of authority and control.
Most interesting is how quickly Marie settles into her new mode of coping so soon after Jean’s mysterious disappearance. There was no suicide note, no signs of any unrest or wanting to leave on his part and most importantly no body found, which Marie takes as a positive. The time skip isn’t revealed but it doesn’t appear too long after the holiday that Marie is attending dinner parties alone and accepting advances from male admirers.
Yet because Marie can still see and converse with Jean at home he is therefore still a tangible factor in her life as far as she is concerned, but this doesn’t stop her getting involved with Vincent (Jacques Nolot) – after all, a passionate woman still needs loving. While Vincent admits to being with someone he doesn’t love, Marie admits she is cheating on Jean initially behaving as if she has his unspoken blessing.
This gives us two memorable but very different scenes based around Marie’s sexuality. First after a night out with Vincent, she pleasures herself whilst imagining both Vincent and jean’s hands caressing her body. The second is when she sleeps with Vincent for the first time and starts laughing halfway through because he is so “light,” a reference to either his gentle technique or Jean’s bulkier physique.
If Marie is denial about Jean’s death Ozon waits until the final act to show just how far this delusion has gone and hits us, and Marie, right between the eyes with some home truths incurring seismic consequences. But again, this isn’t about portraying Marie as a villain, rather someone with a solipsistic view of her own life in need of a reality check which arrives under the harshest of circumstances.
Ozon presents us with a study of grief that sounds on paper to be implausible and in the realm of fantasy but plays out like it could actually happen, and maybe already has. A tragic loss begets confused emotions and denial is an accepted stage of grieving so it is not without foundation; we often say “I can’t believe he’s gone” upon losing someone close to us while instances of people seeing the recently deceased are common place.
Making this all the more engaging is Charlotte Rampling’s mesmerising performance as Marie. Rampling was 54 here and still striking woman, exuding a graceful confidence and mature sensuality that makes the sex scenes more palatable and less sensationalist, but the true power of her allure is in how human she makes Marie, even at the height of her delusion.
The screen is practically all Rampling’s for the majority of the film and Ozon films her in every way possible to capture very requisite natural essence of the character, allowing Rampling to take us deep into Marie’s thoughts with just a forlorn look out of a train window, or the hopeful elation of the final scene.
Under The Sand is provocative and challenging but in asking us to recognise the effect of guilt and reflect upon ourselves as people insofar as the roles we play in life. It’s never depressing but is stark, lifted from the gloom by the peccante energy of Rampling’s towering performance.