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'Under the Sand'

A mystery remains: Compelling 'Under the Sand' keeps the audience guessing

Friday, July 06, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the French drama "Under the Sand," opening today at the Regent Square Theater, Jean Drillon (Bruno Cremer) exudes weariness. He drifts off to sleep as his wife, Marie (Charlotte Rampling), drives to their country house in southwestern France. He fortifies himself with coffee during a rest-stop break. At bedtime, he says he's tired and Marie clicks off the light so they can go to sleep.

    Movie Review


Rating: Unrated but R in nature for nude sunbathers, sexual scenes, subject matter.

Starring: Charlotte Rampling

Director: Francois Ozon

Critic's Call: 3 stars


The next day, the couple head for a deserted, private section of the beach. He asks if she wants to swim, she declines and he peels off his shirt. Marie falls asleep on the sun-baked sand and when she awakens, she slowly begins to realize Jean is nowhere in sight.

Concern boils into full-fledged panic, and Marie goes to a nearby beach for help. The police eventually are summoned, and a helicopter scours the area looking for the bearish, gray-haired man in blue trunks. They ask if he had personal or professional reasons to disappear and for a precise physical description that obviously will be used if a corpse surfaces.

Marie, with no answers and no body (and nobody), eventually returns to their apartment in Paris. Several months pass and when we next see her, she's at a small dinner party, talking about Jean and how he always promises to come to the gym but never does. Her use of the present tense touches off nervous glances around the table. We know and they know Jean is gone, so why is she talking about him? Or, later, seeing him at her apartment, even as she begins dating another man?

The subtitled film, directed and co-written by Francois Ozon, explores what happens when a woman married to a man for 25 years is left with no answers about his whereabouts. Or answers that are too disturbing to contemplate.

It was inspired by a real-life disappearance that occurred when Ozon was 9 or 10 years old and vacationing with his parents in the Landes region of France. They regularly encountered a Dutch couple in their 60s on the beach and one day, the man went for a swim and never came back. They saw the helicopter, the frantic talk with lifeguards and young Ozon imagined the woman collecting her husband's belongings and returning to their vacation home alone.

Ozon never learned how that sad story ended. He doesn't spell out everything for the audience; he drops clues about what apparently happened but there is no flashback showing us Jean's actions after he announced his intention to swim. We are left to draw any number of conclusions and, mainly, to watch how Marie's mind reacts to this horribly abrupt, inexplicable end to her marriage.

Jean remains an out-and-out mystery but even Marie is only broadly sketched. She drops hints about having been an excellent swimmer as a girl and about once having had big plans early in her teaching career. She let those go when she married Jean.

Above all, Marie is stuck in the early stage of grief known as denial; she can't muster the energy for being angry and acceptance is like a distant spot on the horizon. It seems no coincidence, however, that she is teaching her college English students "The Waves" by Virginia Woolf, an author troubled by mental problems who eventually drowned herself in a river.

Rampling and her clear blue eyes -- which can seem hooded in sorrow, wide-eyed with horror or bright with anticipation -- are at the center of this film. Unlike some films packed with details and characters and extras, "Under the Sand" takes a minimalist, spare approach to storytelling.

If you like all of your questions precisely answered, you may find "Under the Sand" a less than satisfying experience. If, however, you can think of the movie as a strong undercurrent pulling you along, you may enjoy the journey. It emphasizes that appearances can be deceiving -- Jean discovers a nest of bugs while gathering kindling early in the movie and Marie seems charming and normal at the dinner table, even when everyone else knows something is terribly amiss.

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