See the Sea
Regarde la mer
Directed by François Ozon — 1997, France — 52 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Suspense
Review: See the Sea
After making over three dozen short films, See The Sea (1997) was François Ozon’s first feature. It is one of the most strikingly original thrillers (although it is much more than that) in years. It begins by sensually detailing the sights and sounds of a gorgeous island retreat, but by the end – thanks in part to the flawless peformances of its two actresses – it has created a vision of chaos both unnerving and revelatory. All this is achieved in under one hour (to make a full program the film is usually shown, as on this DVD, with Ozon’s short comic film, “A Summer Dress” – reviewed below). Although I’m a seasoned veteran of the suspense genre, I found two or three moments in See The Sea overwhelming, although they contained no overt violence. Is this film worth the emotional rollercoaster ride it took me on? Absolutely!
Sasha (Sasha Hails) is a young mother summering on the idyllic resort island of Yeu with her baby Siofra (Hails’s real-life daughter, Samantha), awaiting her businessman husband’s return from Paris. Her solitude is broken by the appearance of Tatiana (Marina de Van), a brooding young backpacker who asks to camp outside her cottage. Sasha is increasingly fascinated with the mysterious visitor, whose demeanor grows more sinister as she insinuates herself into the other woman’s life.
See The Sea uses this simple plot, realized through masterful pacing, design and performances, to explore the complex web of curiosity, desire, and identity.
Before looking at what makes this film so original, it should be noted that it also fits into the tradition of serious, yet darkly entertaining, works of suspense, such as those by Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, Vertigo – for trivia buffs, chapter 9 of this DVD is called “Among the Dead,” which is a literal translation of the title of the French novel that inspired Vertigo), Polanski (Knife in the Water, The Tenant), Chabrol (Les Biches, Le Boucher), as well as such popular shockers as Curtis Hanson’s The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (whose antagonist, like Tatiana, is a nanny; Hanson went on to make one of the best films of the ’90s, L.A. Confidential).
But See The Sea is no simple imitation of earlier thrillers. Ozon brilliantly combines the rhetoric of suspense films – pacing, increasingly dark and confining spaces, tortured compositions – with the freshness and light of the great Eric Rohmer, whose La Collectioneuse, Pauline at the Beach, and Summer (Le Rayon Vert) also come to mind. (Before making films, Rohmer and Chabrol co-authored a classic 1957 study of Hitchcock.) Like Rohmer, Ozon captures the pull of nature, with its inviting – yet sometimes menacing – beauty. Also like Rohmer, he counterpoints the extreme naturalness of his settings and actors’ performance style (no trace of a soundstage or The Method here) with key objects in bold, deeply-saturated primary colors. In additon to the eye-popping yellows (the dinner plate which Tatiana licks clean) and blues (the riotously artificial cobalt “darkness” which surrounds her at the climax), there is a stunning use of red. It is the color of Tatiana’s dome-shaped tent (which at night resembles a pulsing heart), the dresses which Sasha begins to wear as her interest in Tatiana grows into an obsession, and, on a devilishly playful note, the rows of blood-red beef in the supermarket which Tatiana visits (the irony of this brief, wordless scene is enhanced by underscoring it with Franck’s choral piece “Panis Angelicus,” literally ‘bread of the angels’).
Ozon combines and refracts those earlier traditions into a remarkably original work. One of its most innovative features is the almost radically elliptical narrative. Ozon either condenses many scenes to a single resonant shot, or omits them altogether. Other times he shows, as he put it, “blocks of time without giving any explanations or psychological justifications. I just wanted to impart sensations, impressions and signs that the audience would be free to accept or reject…[to allow them] to have time to ask questions from which anxiety and suspense would derive.” It should be added that those scenes which unfold in real-time are often beautiful, whether focusing on aspects of the island, the sea, or the two women.
Yet for all of his narrative experimentation, Ozon’s story is always exactly as clear as he wants it to be; even as the sexual and philosophical ambiguities grow. This elliptical technique actually makes the film more engrossing, as we use our imaginations to fill in the “missing” scenes (which would have been included – redundantly – in a conventional movie). Ozon understands that what we can imagine, within the framework he has set up, can be much more unsettling, and memorable, than what he could show. It also explains how he was able to make what becomes a sheerly terrifying film without showing any violence.
This elliptical technique also demonstrates his precocious mastery of narrative rhythm. The film feels both relaxed and increasingly, at times excruciatingly, suspenseful. Paradoxically, this 52-minute feature is so meticulously developed that it seems to go by in a matter of moments, yet it packs the emotional thrust of a film twice its length.
The performances of both Sasha Hails and Marina de Van, completely natural yet multi-layered, are spellbinding. Ozon has a well-deserved reputation for directing women; he revived Charlottle Rampling’s career with Under The Sand, and was able to cast many of France’s greatest actresses – past, present, and likely future – in 8 Women, including Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, and newcomer Ludivine Sagnier (who co-stars in Ozon’s Water Drops On Burning Rocks and Swimming Pool).
Despite the logistical difficulties of having Hails work with her own baby (although Samantha reportedly always cried on cue, Hails has said she would not want to repeat the experience), it does give an extra layer of authenticity. (In a somewhat reflexive twist, the baby’s crib has a translucent front with the same aspect ratio as the film, creating a sort of double frame around this vulnerable center of the action, and emotion.) Ozon was also shrewd in not revealing to Hails the final scenes of the picture – which was shot in chronological order – until they were ready to film.
Hails and de Van use the most subtle gestures, facial expressions and eye movements to create great tension, even as they reveal the intrinsic nature of their characters. The cat-and-mouse game takes on ever more disturbing significance, leading up to the final dinner scene in which Tatiana badgers Sasha for increasingly explicit information about what it was like delivering her baby, until she twists the act of childbirth into something monstrous (“It can get infected”). Even more than her words, Tatiana’s mere presence in listening to – and staring at – Sasha creates unbearable suspense. De Van’s achievement is remarkable, as she develops Tatiana from an ingratiating kid into a force of pure, but psychologically credible, evil. (De Van is also an accomplished writer/director, including 2002’s In My Skin.) Ozon is also to be credited for allowing his actors plenty of breathing room, to create such richly-developed characters, even as he controls the momentum of the film through his screenplay and taut editing.
To take just one instance of Ozon’s technique, look at the first dinner scene. Note Sasha’s body language as she animatedly tells of a comical backpacking incident from a few years earlier, all the while eying Tatiana; the menace implicit in Tatiana licking clean, with animal-like delight, her bright yellow plate; and finally Sasha recoiling, ever so slightly, from the feral young woman. Ozon ends this brief scene, so pregnant with suspense, with a looming silhouette of Tatiana. Cut to a single shot of her red tent, which looks like a quietly pulsing heart, surrounded by darkness. Then cut to Sasha in her bathroom, meticulously brushing her teeth. (That toothbrush will soon give rise to one of the film’s most unnerving moments.)
I’m surprised that I have not read or heard any comments on what I’m sure some viewers must see as the film’s misogyny, or even homophobia (although Ozon is openly, and judging by his interviews very comfortable being, gay). I do not believe the film is either misogynistic or homophobic (in fact, it won the best picture award at the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival), but you can see how it could be interpreted that way. After all, Sasha breaks the rules of conventional domesticity, not only by her uncontrollable desire (her tryst with the male stranger in the wood, not to mention her scene alone with the chair), but by her increasing obsession with the mysterious woman stranger, which also raises the taboo against same-sex attraction. The reactionary core of too many thrillers has taught us what happens when you go looking for, or even just stumble upon, Mr. – or Ms. – Goodbar. I do not want to divulge any of the film’s major plot twists, but let me ask, Is Sasha being “punished for her sins”? And if so, are those sins for her adultery, or perhaps her nascent lesbianism/bisexuality, or for leaving her baby unattended once too often? Or some combination of all those factors?
But See The Sea is far beyond the moralizing cliches endemic to the thriller; in fact, it expands the genre’s boundaries through both intense realism and delicious irony. The film is filled with menacing, visceral, yet edgy, sexual symbolism: Freudianism with an attitude. Who can forget the climactic moment of the husband banging on the outside of Tatiana’s red tent – shot from inside, reducing him to an amorphous shape – and then unzipping it, in an image which is at once erotically-fraught, droll, and utterly terrifying.
At times the sexual symbolism resonates with even deeper meaning. One of the most enigmatic moments finds Tatiana in an ancient graveyard. She slowly, almost seductively, sticks her hand through a crack on the lid of a tomb. Ozon handles this Gothically iconic moment beautifully: We never see what, if anything, Tatiana touches – only darkness is visible within. When we look back on this scene from the film’s end, it suggests an almost metaphysical, even diabolical, dimension, despite Ozon’s focus on the ambiguities of human psychology.
See The Sea is a fully-realized work of unbearable suspense, emotional complexity, and – on many levels – genuine mystery. It also marks the feature debut of a prodigiously talented new filmmaker.
- Directed and Written by François Ozon
- Produced by Nicolas Brévière & Olivier Delbosc
- Associate Producer Marc Missonnier
- Cinematography by Yorick Le Saux
- Sound by Daniel Sobrino
- Edited by Jeanne Moutard
- Set Design by Cécile Vacheret
- Music by Eric Neveaux
- Non-original Music from “Panis Angelicus” by César Franck
- Sasha Hails as Sasha
- Marina de Van as Tatiana
- Samantha as Siofra, the baby
- Paul Raoux as Paul Noyer, Sasha’s husband
Review: “A Summer Dress”
Ozon’s acclaimed short comic film, “A Summer Dress” (1996), is often presented – as on the DVD – with See The Sea (reviewed above), to make a full, and eclectically satisfying, program. “A Summer Dress,” one of the last of three dozen shorts which the director made between 1986 and 1997, is a buoyant work of imagination and genuine charm. Among other awards, it won Best Short Film at the L.A. Outfest.
“A Summer Dress” begins with handsome, low-key 19-year-old Luc (Frédéric Mangenot) relaxing with his boyfriend Sébastien (Sébastien Charles) on their summer holiday. When Sébastien insists on lip-synching, and swiveling his hips, to the singer Sheila’s French version of Sonny Bono’s (!) song “Bang! Bang!,” Luc makes a beeline for the beach. There he is approached by Lucia (Lucia Sanchez), a young woman eager to make his acquaintance. As the plot unfolds, we learn much more about Luc’s memorable day, and discover the playfully ironic meaning of the title.
Pairing this short with See The Sea works on several levels. Both of these well-crafted, and inspired, films take place near the beach, revel in the sensual pleasures of summer, feature trysting in the nearby woods and, centrally, show protagonists exploring their sexuality. Luc does so overtly and with delight, while Sasha in See The Sea approaches it more subtly and with tension.
All of the actors in “A Summer Dress” are natural and convincing. Frédéric Mangenot is especially adept at conveying, subtly but clearly, the wide range of feelings which Luc experiences.
The writing and direction (both by Ozon), design, cinematography, use of sound and music (even “Bang! Bang!” has its place) are all excellent.
This film succeeds beautifully in capturing not only the unique delights of a summer holiday, but a young man’s continuing sexual awakening.
Ozon’s accomplishment shown in this short reveals how supremely ready he was to create his first feature, See The Sea.
- Directed and Written by François Ozon
- Produced by Olivier Delbosc
- Cinematography by Yorick Le Saux
- Edited by Jeanne Moutard
- Production Design by Sandrine Cayron
- Music by Sonny Bono (song “Bang Bang” performed by Sheila)
- Frédéric Mangenot as Luc
- Lucia Sanchez as Lucia
- Sébastien Charles as Sébastien
Zeitgeist‘s ‘double feature’ DVD — including both “A Summer Dress” and See The Sea — offers very good image and sound, as well as some interesting supplemental features described below.
- Original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1
- Widescreen transfer enhanced for 16 x 9 televisions
- In French with English subtitles
- Includes a François Ozon biography and filmography
- Theatrical trailer for Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks
- Booklet which features Ozon’s comments on the See The Sea, including his thoughts on the actresses, shooting, point of view, and suspense.
- $29.99 suggested retail
Reviewed October 10, 2003 / Revised October 23, 2020