- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 21, 2001

"Under the Sand" is the kind of "woman's picture" that gives the term a formidable rather than a trifling reputation. Gravely absorbing and stirring, the movie is the best of its kind since Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Blue."
"Sand" introduces American art-house patrons to the work of a talented young French director, Francois Ozon, and allows them to renew their acquaintance with the transplanted English actress Charlotte Rampling, who has been a French resident for about 30 years.
Miss Rampling seems a good choice for Mr. Ozon's intimate study about the repercussions of sudden marital loss and lingering sorrow, loneliness and uncertainty even though she isn't the awesome expressive instrument that Juliette Binoche proved to be in "Blue."
The earlier film began by dealing the heroine a calamitous double loss of husband and child and left her in a suicidal mood. Miss Rampling's character, Marie Drillon, is less severely battered by fate.
A beloved spouse, Jean, portrayed by Bruno Cremer, vanishes. Foul play or deception don't seem involved, and the disappearance is more or less clarified in the closing stages of the story to the satisfaction of outsiders if not necessarily the protagonist. For her, the mystery persists in ways that could prove permanently damaging and delusionary.
Marie is a professor of English literature on the faculty of a university in Paris. The role, as shaped by Mr. Ozon in collaboration with a trio of female screenwriters, demands a leading lady who can keep an audience in doubt about the balance of fragility and resilience in an individual's makeup. Miss Rampling often cast perversely in her youth, particularly in such Nazi-steeped potboilers as "The Damned" and "The Night Porter" never has had a more sympathetic or substantial role than Marie. It already has secured her comeback celebrity in France.
"Sand," realized on a frugal budget, was shot in two installments with different camera equipment. The first reel or so, depicting the ocean-side vacation that culminates in Jean's mysterious disappearance, was done early as a sample inducement for backers. Mr. Ozon had 35mm cameras available for these episodes. He had to postpone the completion for several months.
By that time, he was forced to economize with Super16 cameras. In retrospect, the best act of concealment is stylistic: Detecting signs of inconsistency, dramatic or pictorial, between the first and second production periods is difficult.
Crisp vignettes establish Marie and Jean on their way to a secluded cabin on a beach near Landes, in southwest France. The director gets us quickly to a destination while also fluidly suggesting the passage of time from one vignette to the next.
Marie and Jean seem a devoted couple. He is bulky and weary in a way that hints at lurking coronary problems, or perhaps a second coronary attack. On the beach the day after arriving, they separate while Marie naps and Jean goes for a swim. That's the last we see of a living Jean. When Marie wakes, he is nowhere in sight. A sudden, sweeping camera movement from right to left underscores the sense of dismay: all that beachscape and no trace of Jean.
The heroine summons help, to no immediate avail. Jean becomes a missing person officially. An initial element of ghostliness intrudes in a homely way: The sound of a shutter in the night is mistaken by the bereft and perplexed wife as a portent of her husband's return.
The narrative resumes months later in Paris, where Marie is seen carrying out teaching duties Virginia Woolf's "The Waves" is the topic of discussion. She also dines out with friends, who share awkward glances when she speaks of Jean in the first person. They appear eager to promote a guest named Vincent (Jacques Nolot) as a prospective suitor.
Vincent makes only as much headway as Marie is willing to humor. Jean remains vividly alive to Marie as a phantom: They share breakfast conversations and erotic reveries and other spectral encounters. At best, Vincent's overtures are premature and his need for a shave is long overdue. Marie proves a little cruel when responding to his insecurities.
But anyone rooting for the heroine to respond to loss and grief by grabbing a lethal weapon and going on a rampage against Vincent will be disappointed by the restraint and essential pathos of "Under the Sand." Mr. Ozon evidently disarmed a French public and press that had him typed as an enfant terrible capable of hiding sadistic tricks up his sleeves.
The director, without much of a track record here "Under the Sand" is his fourth feature, and the earlier Ozons never got beyond festival showcasing is easy to welcome as a new master of transparency, particularly in episodes that visualize figments of the imagination. Mr. Ozon is deft and sophisticated enough to evoke sinister, apprehensive moods without divorcing them from a realistic or compassionate psychological framework.
You feel jumpy a good deal of the time, but not because the movie is taking unfair advantage. It's because of moments such as the following: Marie walks into Jean's darkened office at their apartment and suddenly duplicates herself because her image is visible in a mirror across the room.
You fear for Marie because her loss is hard to bear and she's obviously gone a little crazy in the aftermath. But the craziness remains well within empathetic boundaries. The director leaves you being unable to tell whether Marie can cope with the finality of Jean's loss. In a pictorial sense, he chooses a brilliant ambiguous "resolution," reaching a point that recalls the finale of Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" while achieving a painful and eloquent emotional emphasis all its own.
Mr. Ozon's breakthrough feature is playing at the Cinema Arts, the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and the Cineplex Odeon Shirlington. It adds yet another exceptional attraction to a summer art-house roster that seems to have gotten stronger as the Hollywood mainstream releases have become more feeble.
If this is the wave of the future for summer moviegoing, it's a trade-off too desirable to resist.

* * * 1/2

TITLE: "Under the Sand"
RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, with occasional profanity and exceptional sexual candor, including interludes of simulated intercourse; strong morbid overtones in an episode set in a morgue)
CREDITS: Directed by Francois Ozon. Screenplay by Mr. Ozon, with the collaboration of Emmanuele Bernheim, Marina de Van and Marcia Romano. Cinematography by Jeanne Lapoirie and Antoine Heberle. Editing by Laurence Bawedin. Music by Philippe Rombi. In French with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

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