Under the Sand
Sous le sable
Directed by François Ozon — 2001, France — 92 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Drama
IN BRIEF, haunting film about a professor descending into madness after her husband mysteriously disappears on the beach.
Under The Sand (2000) is yet another strikingly original, powerful, and haunting work from writer/director François Ozon (See The Sea, Water Drops On Burning Rocks). This heart-wrenching exploration of loss, grief, denial – and desire – also showcases a career-defining performance by British actress Charlotte Rampling (The Night Porter, The Verdict, Ozon’s Swimming Pool).
Married for twenty-five years, Marie (Charlotte Rampling) and Jean Drillon (Bruno Cremer) spend vacations at their country house in the Landes region of western France. But this summer, while Marie naps on the beach, her husband goes off for a swim and vanishes without a trace. Did he drown? Did he run off? Increasingly distraught, Marie notifies the authorities, but after an extensive search no trace of him is found. As the weeks pass, everyone assumes that Jean is dead. Then he reappears to Marie – when they are alone. She tries to go on leading a secret life with a phantom husband, as she copes with the matchmaking of her best friend Amanda (Alexandra Stewart), who wants to see her involved with the charming, and eager, Vincent (Jacques Nolot). Marie uses her work (as a literature professor), exercise, friends, humor – and anger – to hide the pain of her suppressed grief, but her erotic stirrings and fantasy life become ever more visceral.
Before looking at what makes this film unique, it should be noted that it brings to mind such probing and beautifully-wrought character studies as Rohmer’s Summer (Le Rayon vert, 1986), enigmatic and erotic dramas like Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), and even imaginative fantasies of mortals and their spectral lovers such as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Bruno Barreto’s Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands (1978), and Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deepy (1991). Its complex sexual tensions and multi-layered ambiguity recall Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), which also influenced Ozon’s unnerving debut feature, See The Sea (1997). Even with this eclectic pedigree, Under The Sand is an original and immediate work of great visual, and aural, beauty and sometimes shattering poignance.
Charlotte Rampling, whose career was spectacularly revived with this acclaimed and popular film, offers an intriguing insight into the writer/director, in her interview included on the DVD. She remarks that Ozon is both “the sweetest man” yet, as she adds affectionately, he is also someone with a “creepy inner world.” That tension can be seen at the heart of Ozon’s other films, and it is part of the reason why his work seems both slightly familiar (as much from universal personal experience as from earlier films which he and we have seen) and more than a little unnerving.
This film grew out of a childhood memory. Ozon recalls, on his commentary track, that as a young boy, on the same beach where he filmed Under The Sand, he heard about a Dutch couple whose husband just vanished one day. That memory – and mystery – haunted him for years; and it may suggest part of this film’s personal and eerie tone – whether or not it is actually a ghost story. I know a few people who do consider this a supernatural tale. Be that as it may, I think Ozon’s delving under the surface of Marie’s life is so rich in psychological insight, not to mention cinematic beauty, that whatever its possible metaphysical dimension, it is an extraordinary work. Then again, Ozon revels in people reading his films, which are always both multi-layered and highly entertaining, from their individual perspectives. What he said about the title image in his latest film, Swimming Pool, could also serve as an interpretive motto for his other pictures: “[It] stands for whatever anyone wants to see in it.”
Ozon adopted an unusual technique in making Under The Sand. As planned, production stopped after just a few days of shooting. He had wanted to get a feel for Ms. Rampling’s performance, and for the unique qualities she was bringing to the character, before structuring his final screenplay with collaborators Emmanuèle Bernheim, Marcia Romano, and Marina De Van (who also played the diabolical vagrant in See The Sea, and is herself an accomplished filmmaker). Perhaps this production strategy can account for some of the film’s immediacy. It certainly helps us understand how a film centered on one performance feels like such a full and rich vision.
Under The Sand fits into Ozon’s growing body of work (seven features in six years) in some intriguing ways, even as it shows his continuing development as a filmmaker – and as an explorer of some of our darker emotional recesses. Stylistically, Under The Sand resembles his other pictures in its masterful use of simple technical means – concentrated visual design, minimal camera movement, and a judicious but eclectic use of music – to explore the subtle psychological shifts in its main character.
The word “under” in the title may prepare us for the interiority of this film. It is perhaps Ozon’s most intimate study to date, focusing on developments in Marie’s external world to reflect, and comment on, her inner changes. This happens on a large, but still almost subliminal, scale by moving from the sunny beach in the beginning, before Jean disappears, to the – literally and of course metaphorically – shadowy, at times almost film noir-like, interiors of the Paris scenes, which comprise most of the film. And it happens in countless fleeting visual and aural images throughout, whether the series of closeups of Marie which punctuate the film, or the sounds of a creaking floorboard or the weirdly echoes water as Marie swims in a dark, almost-deserted pool.
Ozon sets up his experimentation with sound, which recurs periodically, during the ambiguous early scene of Jean in the woods, when he filters out all ambient sound and employs just one intense focus, whether it is the harsh crackling of branches or the impossible clamor of ants uncovered beneath a rotting log. During such heightened moments, the sound and image are simultaneously real and subjective, beautiful and strange. Ozon also makes striking use of music. It is elegiac, as fits the tone, but remarkably eclectic, shifting between classical (Chopin and Mahler) and avant pop (Portishead and Barbara). At times Ozon cuts off the music in mid-phrase: jarring but dead-on effective.
This is yet another visually rich picture from Ozon. He keeps his palette simple, with blues, greens and browns predominating; and achieves a look which is muted but saturated. Throughout the film, the changes in color tellingly reflect Marie’s evolving – or rather devolving – emotional state. At times it almost feels like there is a wilder color – maybe a piercing blue – waiting to burst forth, but the shadowy lighting keeps it in check. Marie is, of course, a model of keeping herself in check, at least until the film’s climax.
Marie’s emotions, as embodied in Ms. Rampling’s flawless performance, also affect the narrative structure and editing. The story is told in a not quite linear manner which simultaneously maintains a dreamlike, even mythic, feel, while never letting us forget that the source of dramatic conflict is between Marie and herself. Although the structure is less radically elliptical than, say, See The Sea, Ozon still runs a scene only as long as necessary to convey its point, then he cuts. Some scenes are extended, drawing us along with their sensuous rhythm; others are just a single evocative image. Yet all of this technique is used to let us peer under the surface, and share the intense emotional journey, of Marie. This is not some rarefied hothouse, or rather arthouse, flower of a film; it is an intensely involving portrait of a lady on, or just spilling over, the brink of madness.
The picture also contains a rich vein of humor, which is often sly and multi-textured. There are many small moments, like when Marie at the summer house goes to a long-unused sofa and pulls off the dustcover which resembles (foreshadowing alert!) a shroud. There are also several extended examples, as in the Chinese restaurant scene, where for a long time we watch Marie and Vincent – on their first date – photographed through a huge fish tank. It’s funny, bizarre, yet exactly right in a surreal kind of way. It shrewdly encapsulates the psychological dynamics, as the camera separates us from Vincent and Marie, even as Marie separates herself emotionally from Vincent. As she says, matter of factly, “My relationship with Jean has always been my priority.”
The main body of humor centers on Marie’s relationship with the phantom but still fleshly Jean, or as I see it, her fantasy of him. There is something at once endearing, unsettling, and sad about how she carries on a “normal” existence – chatting, joking, buying him a tie, embracing – with her absent-but-present spouse. Cynics might contend that he is so completely responsive to her moods and needs that he could never be real. One of Jean’s most memorable scenes comes when Vincent is making love to Marie, who has turned her head turned away from him as she smiles to Jean, standing in the shadowy doorway and smiling back at her approvingly. Isn’t that just what she would want, being with both of the most important men in her life simultaneously?
Ozon brings yet another, very different, texture into the film by making Marie a professor of English literature at the Sorbonne, where she is teaching Viriginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931). (Her being an Englishwoman living in France also removes her that much more from her external situation – you thought I was going to say ‘fish out of water’?) Following three brief scenes, which have telegraphed various aspects of Marie’s life alone (that is, outside of her apartment where Jean remains): at the métro (the train pulls in with a fluid, almost wave-like motion, connecting with the film’s water imagery, which we’ll look at in a moment); in the gym on a stationary bike (metaphorically, and by its nature, it spins and spins but never goes anyplace); and then in the eerily gorgeous pool. Abruptly, we cut from the intense but restrained blue of the pool to see Marie standing in front of a dull green field – the chalkboard of her lecture hall.
Since I am fascinated by connections between cinema and literature, I hope that you will indulge me while I look at how Ozon uses Woolf’s text, which reflects in suggestive ways on Marie, as well as the film, and perhaps even the filmmaker himself. If not, please feel welcome to skip down five paragraphs to “The central unifying image…”
In The Waves, Woolf uses symbols in the external world to correspond to the inner reality of the characters, in a book which some consider more prose poem than novel. It follows the lives of three men and three women who meet in college, and who all fall in love, in one way or another, with the enigmatic Percival (who dies young). Bernard, whom we focus on in the excerpt heard in Under The Sand (quoted below in full), becomes a successful writer, but is haunted by feelings of personal failure since he has always played it safe both in his work and his life. This passage comes from near the beginning of the (unnumbered) seventh chapter, which begins, “The sun had now sunk lower in the sky….” The range of subtle expressions which dart across Ms. Rampling’s face is both revealing (the actress subtly telling us more about Marie than the character can herself accept) and spellbinding.
‘And time,’ said Bernard, ‘lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. Last week, as I stood shaving, the drop fell. I, standing with my razor in my hand, became suddenly aware of the merely habitual nature of my action (this is the drop forming) and congratulated my hands, ironically, for keeping at it. Shave, shave, shave, I said. Go on shaving. The drop fell. All through the day’s work, at intervals, my mind went to an empty place, saying, “What is lost? What is over?” And “Over and done with,” I muttered, “over and done with,” solacing myself with words. People noticed the vacuity of my face and the aimlessness of my conversation. The last words of my sentence tailed away. And as I buttoned on my coat to go home I said more dramatically, “I have lost my youth.”
‘It is curious how, at every crisis, some phrase which does not fit insists upon coming to the rescue — the penalty of living in an old civilization with a notebook….
At this point Marie breaks off abruptly, apologizing to her students that class will end early today. She stops because she has noticed the handsome young lifeguard who, months earlier, had tried to help her find her husband. When the boy later approaches her, she tells him that she has never seen him before or ever been in that part of France. Such is the power of love, and denial.
Woolf’s text can be related to Marie in several ways: Broadly because the book is about people focusing on a dead object of desire who continues deeply to affect their lives, and more directly in its drawing connections between how a person (Bernard in the novel, Marie in the film) desperately turns everyday objects, like the water drop, into grandiose symbols of existence. (Ozon may also have chosen the passage because of the central image’s association with his previous film, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, which he had adapted from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s early play.) In terms of narrative, Woolf and Ozon both employ an impressionistic technique, similar rhythms (long, flowing passages juxtaposed with short sharp bursts), and a focus on how a characater’s internal needs force the external world to squeeze out a symbol. This, and a few other, references to Woolf is not just a highfalutin cross-media allusion. They point up a connection between the great author, who increasingly feared that she was losing her mind, and Ozon’s fictional academic interpreter who desperately tries to deny that she is losing hers. (One can only imagine how differently the film of Michael Cunningham’s Woolf-inspired novel The Hours – which in fact was Woolf’s original title for The Waves – would be had Ozon directed it instead of Stephen Daldry, although his picture is excellent, and perhaps even influenced by Ozon.)
And if you are interested in same-sex aspects of cinema, consider the special resonance of a woman reading a passage by a great bisexual female author from the point of view of a fictional medicore male author in a film written and directed by a gay man (although Ozon has referred, perhaps with his tongue in his cheek, to Under The Sand as his “heterosexual film”). Perhaps one part of a same-sex sensibility (the gay/lesbian/bisexual artistic heritage is of immense importance) is seeing the world from a unique angle, an outsider’s perspective. In any event, that is certainly true of Marie; and perhaps, by extension, of Ozon too.
The central unifying image of Under The Sand (as well as such other Ozon films as See The Sea and Swimming Pool) is water, as seen in the film’s color scheme emphasizing blue and green, to its many manifestations, from the restaurant’s fish tank to the pool to the Seine to, most potently, the ocean itself – not to mention the title of Woolf’s novel. Although Ozon has said that the sea is “associated in my mind with shedding one’s inhibitions, or with a certain sense of fear,” it is also, of course, a primal symbol of universal resonance. It is where we all came from, so long ago; and where some people – like Jean – disappear. You can see the sea as life, rebirth, the feminine, the unconscious, mystery, fear, death – to name just some of its associations. The richness of Ozon’s imagery comes from his allowing us to interpret – to feel and mull over – his imagery in our own individual ways. There is no cheap one-to-one correspondence of the “What does it mean?” school of intrepretation; as I quoted Ozon above saying, his images “stand… for whatever anyone wants to see in [them].” It feels like he is sharing his dreams, even as he probes ever further into the life of his characters.
It is that grounding in character which makes Ozon’s imagery so organic, powerful and unpretentious (my apologizes if I have made it sound too “English major-y” – it is not). Through a seamless joining of the film’s visual and aural world with Ms. Rampling’s searching performance, Ozon allows us to experience the complex, strange fullness of Marie’s world, although the character can not. Throughout she insists on talking to her friends, to their growing dismay, as if Jean has never left. The film’s heart-breaking poignance stems from our being able to see and understand Marie’s grief while she remains trapped in denial. Perhaps the film’s most astonishing moment, both witty and revelatory, comes after Marie’s first date with Vincent. Literally and emotionally upside-down, she fantasizes about being made love to by the two men in her life, both Vincent and, of course, Jean. But the fragmentation of the image – we see only their hands – tells us more about Marie’s inner life than she wants to know.
More enigmatic is the moment, in the last scene, which gives rise to the film’s title [see the frame at the top of this page]. Marie has returned to the deserted beach where Jean disappeared and, in a close-up, reaches her hand under the sand, grasping at, well, who knows what. This brings to mind the brief yet utterly chilling scene in See The Sea in which the demented Tatiana goes into an ancient graveyard and slowly, almost seductively, sticks her hand through a crack on the lid of a tomb. Ozon handles that 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 dimension, despite Ozon’s focus there – as in Under The Sand – on the ambiguities of human psychology.
And what are we to make of this profoundly ambiguous final scene? Has Marie gone even deeper into delusion? Or is what we are seeing actually happening (since Marie has assured the coroner that the body they eventually found could not have been Jean’s, since he never wore such a wristwatch)? Who is the man, so far away, she runs towards as the film fades out?
Through simple yet lush and evocative images, and a performance of uncommon depth, Ozon leads us to view not only what is on the screen, but what is under the surface of things, under the conscious mind, deep within not only Marie but ourselves.
- Directed by François Ozon
- Written by François Ozon with Emmanuèle Bernheim, Marina De Van & Marcia Romano
- Produced by Olivier Delbosc & Marc Missonnier
- Cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie & Antoine Heberlé
- Costumes by Pascaline Chavanne
- Sound by Jean-Luc Audy, Benoît Hillebrant & Jean-Pierre Laforce
- Edited by Laurence Bawedin
- Original music by Philippe Rombi
- Other music:
- “Septembre (Quel joli temps)” by Barbara
- “Undenied” by Portishead
- Prélude Opus 28 en si mineur – Lento assai by Frédéric Chopin
- Prélude en B major – Vivace by Frédéric Chopin
- Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”) by Gustav Mahler
- Charlotte Rampling as Marie Drillon
- Bruno Cremer as Jean Drillon
- Jacques Nolot as Vincent
- Alexandra Stewart as Amanda
- Pierre Vernier as Gérard
- Andrée Tainsy as Suzanne
Fox Lorber/Winstar Cinema’s DVD offers very good image and sound, as well as some fine supplemental features described below.
- Original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1
- Widescreen transfer enhanced for 16 x 9 televisions
- In French with optional English subtitles (some brief scenes are in English)
- Audio commentary with François Ozon
- Filmed interview with Charlotte Rampling
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed November 6, 2003 / Revised October 23, 2020