Under the Sand (France, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Death: it is the lone certainty in life (forget the bit about taxes). Despite that, when the end comes to a loved one, even if expected, it can be difficult to process and handle. The situation is even more dramatic in cases when a death occurs at an unanticipated time and if there is no body. Religious implications aside, funerals (or wakes or other services) fulfill an important function: they offer a sense of a sense of closure as the corpse is lowered into the ground or as the ashes are presented to the bereaved. Without a body, there is no closure, only uncertainly. This is the province of Under the Sand, the latest feature from internationally celebrated French director François Ozon, whose previous films have included See the Sea and Water Drops on Burning Rocks.

In what is easily her best performance in more than a decade, Charlotte Rampling plays Marie Drillon, an English-born college professor who lives in France with her beloved older husband, Jean (Bruno Cremer). One summer, as usual, the couple travels to a country house near the sea to take a vacation. While Marie is lying on the beach, sunning herself and dozing off, Jean decides to take a swim. He never returns. Marie is left with a host of unanswered questions. Was Jean's death accidental or did he kill himself? Is he really dead or did he fake his death and disappear? Was there anything she could have done to prevent the tragedy? Instead of coping, she goes into deep denial, pretending that Jean is still alive and awaiting her daily return from work. Her friends worry as she continues to refer to her husband in the present tense. The one in the most difficult position is Marie's new lover, Vincent (Jacques Nolot), who knows Jean is dead and is disconcerted by Marie's seeming unwillingness to acknowledge this fact.

The film is resolutely and unflinchingly unsentimental in its depiction of Marie's situation, and this lack of melodrama is one of the most effective weapons in Under the Sand's arsenal. It does not trivialize through manipulation. Instead, Ozon depicts discrete moments in Marie's life, and how they are impacted by her uncertainty: dinner with friends, dates with her lover, a teaching session with her class. When she arrives home, a specter-like Jean is there - a construct of her memories and imagination who listens quietly as she unburdens herself, only occasionally offering advice. Yet there are times when it's clear from Marie's face that she understands, at least on some level, that she is fooling herself. And, occasionally, she comes face-to-face with reality, such as when she enters Jean's home office and sees everything untouched, or when the police call to report that they may have found Jean's body.

The acting is of the highest caliber. The lion's share of the credit goes to Rampling, who immerses herself in the part. It has been nearly 20 years since the heyday of the actress' career (she had roles in Zardoz, Farewell My Lovely, Stardust Memories, and The Verdict, to name a few), but her ability to arrest the camera's attention has not diminished. Her co-stars are of comparable experience. Bruno Cremer is a veteran of the screen, and is well-known around the world for his portrayal of Georges Simenon's Maigret on television. The gruff-looking Jacques Nolot is a French character actor whose work may be familiar to those who have seen recent films by Claire Denis or André Téchiné.

Ozon constructed Under the Sand from a childhood memory in which he recollected a man vanishing into the sea, much as Jean does, and the subsequent unsuccessful search to find his body. Ozon always wondered about the life of the man's wife after the disappearance of her husband, and, to add a layer of verisimilitude to Under the Sand's storyline, he interviewed numerous grief counselors and "studied" bereavement. His careful and detailed approach to the subject matter has resulted in a movie that is difficult to dismiss or forget, and is forceful in its simplicity. The ending is intentionally ambiguous, giving us the same lack of closure that defines Marie's existence. Under the Sand is an effective and moving account of the power of grief and denial.

Under the Sand (France, 2000)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2001-05-04
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: French and English with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1