Under the Sand

She's in denial, and that is final
★★★
☆☆☆
Released: 
2000
Director: 
Francois Ozon
Starring: 
Charlotte Rampling, Bruno Cremer, Jacques Nolot, Alexandra Stewart
The Setup: 
Woman's husband vanishes while on vacation.
Discussion: 

This has always been on my list, seeing as it got quite good reviews when it was out, as did Charlotte Rampling's performance, and it's directed by interesting and artful writer/director Francois Ozon, of Swimming Pool and Water Drops on Burning Rocks.

We open with Rampling as Marie and her husband Jean driving. They arrive at their standard-issue charming rural chateau. Apparently everyone in France over the age of 40 is issued a lovely rural chateau by the state. They seem to live lives of pleasure, having also-required charming meals outside, wine, reading, going to the beach. It's only after a few minutes we realize that they are on vacation, so their lives of pleasure of explicable.

The next day they go to the beach. He speaks of going in for a swim, but she doesn't feel like it. She falls asleep [she never really even sees him go in the water], and when she wakes, she can't see him. It's a good sequence as her panic mounts. She has to spend the rest of the week at their vacation home in case he turns up, which I'm sure was a good time. At one point she hears a noise in the night and thinks he may have returned. At the end of the week she closes the house up and returns home.

SPOILERS > > >
Next thing we see Marie at a dinner party, where her friends are trying to introduce her to Vincent, a handsome single man her age played by Jacques Nolot of Porn Theater]. However, Marie talks about her life as though her husband is still alive, as though she is still married, and her friends get quiet. After dinner her female friend asks her if she saw that psychologist. Marie says no, then immediately asks her friend to call her a cab. That girl DENYIN'!

She goes home and closes her eyes. When she opens them, her husband is there, in her imagination. The next day she is at college where she is an English professor, reading fluently to the class until she sees some young guy who makes her totally lose her composure. I was hoping that it was because she was attracted to him and we were going to start heading into reckless behavior based on her romantic frustrations, but no--turns out he's one of the rescue guys who helped her search for her husband. So her freaking out over him is still all about her denial that her husband is dead. Okay, denial again.

We learn that Marie is going broke, but she won't sign to acknowledge that her husband is dead, which would unlock a lot of funds for her. She goes on a date with Vincent, the handsome guy her friends set her up with, but she talks as though her husband were waiting at home. She buys her husband an expensive tie. She masturbates at home, imagining her husband's hands on her--then two sets of his hands. She has another date with Vicent, and they have sex, during which she starts laughing uncontrollably. Then she goes to the supermarket and we hear a sweet song in the background about how one has to move on and say goodbye, and you think "Okay, maybe this movie is going to DEVELOP a little bit, because it's been nearly an hour into a 90-minute movie and so far it's been just straight denial."

Well, not so fast. Marie gets a phone message saying the police have found her husband's body, and she deletes it. We see her stare through the windows of a fancy restaurant, then go eat fast food in order to save money. The movie successfully makes the fast food restaurant look like a sub-circle of hell. Anyway, by now I am quite bored. It's just denial, denial, denial, and you know what? WE GET IT. There may be an interesting wrinkle with her dumping some psychological mind games on Vincent ["You don't measure up"] or gaining a little more background by visiting her insane mother-in-law [relations are not cordial], but ultimately it's just further fleshing out the denial, and folks, okay, WE GET IT.

Things perk up when, surprise, Marie goes out to see the body. We learn that he was pulled down in some kind of current, and she had previously identified his trunks and hat. She decides that she wants to see the body, even though it is an advanced state of putrification. No, she wants to see it! So they go, they open the bag and UNSTICK the bag from the body [ew] and Rampling's EYES tell you exactly how horrible it is to look at. Then they take her back to the other room, show her some other personal effects and she says "Oh, that's not his watch! It must be someone else." So that's it--she's just going to stay in denial. The end.

Before we leave the spoilers, let's just say I can kind of respect that as an ending--at the last, in the face of all the irrefutable evidence and the vast effort it takes for her to maintain this fiction, dammit, she's going to do it. If only the movie could go back and cut out 30 minutes of wheel-spinning, we'd be in business.
< < < SPOILERS END

So you can't really begrudge it, and it's well done and beautifully acted and nicely shot and directed and everyone is good--it just has a dearth of ideas, and it sags in the late middle, when you get what's going on and all it has to offer is more of the same. I was not surprised at all to learn, on Rampling's interview on the disc, that writer-director Uzon thought of the basic situation--she wakes and her husband is gone--and then just started making the movie with very little actually in place. Because the movie just doesn't have enough ideas to fill up all this time. You can show the same thing in all sorts of different contexts, but you're still ultimately showing the same thing. At least the ending brought things somewhat back in line.

Again, Rampling is brilliant and everything is well done. But if I had it all to do over again I probably would not sit through this. There are more rewarding French films in which absolutely nothing happens, like A Girl Cut In Two, for example.

Incidentally, the trailer is rather outrageous in casting this film as suspenseful mystery thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat, when the truth is something far different. If you've seen the movie, it can be a hoot to watch all the footage you've just seen in place in this staid and somnolent film being cast as a different film entirely. Not maybe worth watching the movie for, but there you go.

Should you watch it: 

If you love French film and Charlotte Rampling. Other than that it's not bad, it just sags big time as it stretches its one idea to feature-length.