Under The Sand
A Film by François Ozon
This new film from François Ozon is an extended meditation that attempts to lead the audience into a very intimate place in the inner life, a realm of experience that has been inaccessible to film. Written by Ozon and three female co-screenwriters, Emanuelle Bernheim, Marcia Romano and Marina de Van, the film explores the ways in which identity and a personal sense of reality are constructed, how they are managed, how they are defended. It has a dreamy, lethargic pace that creates an hypnotic intensity, and it relies for its effect as much on the audiences reaction to events than on the events themselves.
The center of the film is the changing life of middle-aged University professor, Marie Drillion (Charlotte Rampling). Her attempts to come to terms with the passing of her youth, the accomplishments of her life, her mortality, and her sense of identity are given powerful impetus by the sudden, unexpected disappearance of her husband during a vacation.
The "plot" of the film is rather nebulous. We know very little about the history of the relationship between Marie and her husband, Jean (Bruno Cremer). We see only a few, brief interactions that come at the very end of their twenty-year relationship. We know very little about their friends, the reasons behind their circumstances - including the childlessness of their marriage. What little testimony we get comes from sources that are themselves suspect.
But, as befits a film written mostly by women, we know a great deal about how Marie feels. Carol Gilligan has pointed out that the feminine style of story telling involves far less concentration on a linear, "cause and effect" progression of events and far more focus on empathy with the feelings of those involved. Under The Sand has a mosaic, disjointed style to its narrative that exemplifies this kind of story-telling. We not only see Maries reactions to events and situations, but also what she, in her private world, sees.
Ozon attempts to allow us to bridge the gap between consensual and individual reality, to make us party to the meditations, visions and dreams on which Maries choices are based. He does so without seeking to judge her - in fact, withholding important information that would be necessary to making a "diagnostic" judgement about her. He confronts us with a portrait - rather like a Rembrandt, with indistinct but dramatic lighting, little sense of action and an indeterminate background - and invites us to contemplate it.
It is a very evocative portrait. It raises many resonant issues. Maries reaction to her process of aging is one. Sometimes she seems distressed as she contemplates her image in the mirror, smoothing cream into the skin below her eyes. Other times, she seems merely surprised and uncomprehending at the idea that the middle-aged person she sees can possibly be her. Still other times, she seems to forget -as we all do - the whole sense of age.
The complexity of relationship is another core issue. Investigating questions about where a comfortable familiarity born of intimacy becomes boredom and habit, where dependence and sacrifice might seek to become a kind of "power" over the beloved, where a romantic "melding of souls" might become a pathological surrender of identity, Ozon provokes us toward self-examination through our reactions to the characters and situations he has created.
Maires choices about her life: how - and even whether - she wishes to continue it, invite us to think about our own. The examination of the process through which she decides how to react to the offer of relationship from her new friend Vincent reflects human concerns, hopes and anxieties we have all felt. Her decision - partly conscious, partly unconscious - not to abandon her feelings for Jean and her refusal to accept a conventional "conclusion"to a situation she knows intuitively can never be resolved - will always be a loose end - can be seen to have aspects of both an act of existential courage, and one of neurotic desperation.
It is because Ozon refuses to pander to our "need to know" that the film becomes so interesting and engaging. He uses our expectation of some logical explanation to draw us into the story, and then, when an apparent explanation materializes, reminds us that such rational considerations can be completely irrelevant to our inner experience. He uses the languorous pace and extended, passive observations of his characters to re-enforce the sense of the difference between story-telling and living, and suggest the incomprehensible density of the overlapping layers of meaning in actual life. The longer we look, the more we see.
As in actual life - and mirroring Sartres reflection on story-telling in Nausea - the film doesnt have a traditional narrative structure. The "beginning," especially, seems completely arbitrary and inconsequential. The "middle" is already far into development in the opening shots of the film, and the "end" after suggesting the possibility of a traditional "denouement," trails off unsteadily into ambiguity.
This is film, as I have said, of portraiture, rather than narrative. Not a portrait of character, in the sense of how ones inner reality manifests in outer life, but of identity itself. It is a bold experiment, which is surprisingly successful. It conveys feelings (not sentiments) rather than ideas, action or philosophy. It invites us to examines facets of "the human condition" - our own - through the microcosm of one ordinary human life, one unusual - but perhaps, as it turns out, not very extraordinary - set of circumstances.
To carry the weight of such an experiment, Ozon needed an actress who could convey both the surface and the deeper reactions and feelings of Maries character without "acting." Charlotte Rampling gives a performance that in its very opacity, its explicit lack of commitment to a "character" in the conventional dramatic sense, fulfills the evocative possibilities of film to an unusual degree. Her ability to expose herself to the camera, to let it study her without feeling the need to "do" anything gives the film a strong sense of authenticity. The Marie she creates is as difficult to fathom, as mundane and unexciting as a real person.
And she is as fascinating. There is a strong sense of the voyeuristic in the film. Rampling manages to convey a genuine sense of profound emotional and spiritual confusion - and out of it, a concern that neither she, nor we, knows what she is going to do next. The sense of uncertainty, played against the background of the movies measured visual and narrative rhythms, creates an engrossing tension.
Rampling is on screen during almost the entire film. It is her struggle, her metamorphosis, that provides the emotional energy. It is the deeply submerged almost invisible nature of that struggle, whose thrashings in the depths are seen only as tiny ripples on the surface, that she manages to convey and sustain with remarkable effect.
Her supporting cast are a wonderful ensemble of actors. Cremers Jean is a quiet, self-contained man, overweight and a bit coarse-featured. Cremer creates an effective ambiguity as to whether Jeans quiet indicates depression or satisfaction. Maries best friend Amanda (Alexandra Stweart) feels for Marie, but is somewhat distant and self-absorbed. Her sympathy is genuine, but she is too polite, too careful, too civilized, to make it effective. Stewarts energetic performance is an effective foil that amplifies Maries lassitude.
Maries "new man," Vincent (Jaques Nolot) is understanding, but cautious. Like Marie, he is wary and self-protective; anxious to share - up to a point, but conflicted about how to negotiate a compromise between his need for intimacy and his need for independence. Nolot strikes an effective balance between selfishness and sympathy, generosity of spirit and vanity.
The way the film is composed and framed is essential to its effect. Ozon and his two cinematographers, Antoine Héberlé and Jeanne Lapoirie, have collaborated to create images that despite their lack of movement, their apparent simplicity, convey a constant sub-text of tension and imbalance.
The camera will linger on Ramplings face as she reacts - in minimalist pantomime - to some event or thought, then slowly drop away from her face, to hold on a composition of her body, the background, that moves us away from what we expect to be shown and leaves us alone with plenty of time to think about what we have just seen - what we are seeing. The long lens chosen for the final shot compresses distance, creates an image of movement without progress.
Under The Sand is in almost every way the antithesis of mainstream Hollywood film. Its sometimes achingly un-hurried pace, its repudiation of the centrality of plot, its insistence on looking long and hard at situations that have painful aspects, its refusal to provide any kind of conventional "resolution" - much less a "happy ending" - make it nearly a negative image of the kind of "entertainment" Hollywood claims audiences want. Yet, unlike most Hollywood product, it is a film whose ideas, characters and situations have real substance and will continue to provoke reflection and reaction long after the lights come up.
That's my take on it. What's yours?