Under the Sand
dir. Ozon
Opens Fri Aug 10
Cinema 21

When director François Ozon was a young French boy on holiday in the Landes, a southwest region of France on the Bay of Biscay, he befriended an old Dutch couple at the beach. It's not difficult to imagine petit François, age nine or 10, being fascinated by these aging creatures, and struggling also to reconcile his youth with their age. How could he possibly grow old?

In the middle of François' lingering European holiday, something terrible happened: During one of the many days on the beach, the old Dutchman went for a swim and never returned. Helicopters flew low and glided along the shore in search of this man's drowned body. He was never found.

Twenty years later, François Ozon, now a filmmaker, has made Under the Sand, a kind of retelling of this memory. Charlotte Rampling is cast as Marie, a woman who loses her husband to the sea. Because the memory is so unresolved--because the Dutchman didn't simply drown, he disappeared--Ozon decided to start shooting the film without knowing how it would end.

The film begins with Jean and Marie, who have been married 25 years, settling into their holiday home: folding the sheet that has kept the dust from the couch, opening the shutters, setting a table, getting firewood. Jean (Bruno Cremer) is an overweight man who breathes heavily with every activity. Still, the weather is so fine their first day at the beach that Jean tells Marie that he will go for a swim. He never returns from the waves; a subsequent search fails to find his body. Marie is left to close the shutters, return the sheet to the couch, and head back home to Paris, alone in their car.

On her return to Paris, she tries to forget their strange holiday. Her husband is still alive, even living in the house, she believes, and so she has breakfast with Jean. She sleeps with Jean. She talks about Jean in the present tense at parties. When she speaks of him, her face is lit and alive. She exercises every day, probably more than she used to. She goes to work--she is a professor of literature, currently teaching Virginia Woolf.

But slowly, Marie submits to the waves of truth, and she must make amends with her missing husband. Another man has taken interest in her, and his presence disrupts Jean's ghostly reality. In her dreams, Marie's body is caressed by both men, and she must decide whether to view the world imaginatively or realistically. There is a sadness to both options; there is a relief in both, as well.

Charlotte Rampling is now 56 years old. Her beautiful lips naturally frown and wrinkles intrude on her gemstone eyes; now, those flashing eyes are her youth's remainder. As captured in 1974's The Night Porter, she was a tigress in her youth. Rampling's eyes sit widely on her face--so, so blue, and irrefutably cat-shaped. As a young actress, it was her eyes that made her sophisticated and strange beyond her years. But in Under the Sand, Ozon focuses on his star's age: He lights her poorly on purpose, and he lingers on her face so we can trace her wrinkles. Never is she not beautiful; never has there been another film so dedicated to the true beauty of an older woman.

Ozon has integrated Rampling's own life into the telling of his story: We've glimpsed her eyes, now cradled in their boats of skin, on film for years, and the ghost of Rampling's youth is present in Marie. Ozon passes on the haunt and longing of his own childhood memory, and the romance and fear that was born behind his innocent eyes when an easy holiday was set to ruin.