An exquisite reflection on personal bereavement, with a career-best performance by Charlotte Rampling as the widow who just can’t let go of the memory of her adored husband, “Under the Sand” reps a hard commercial sell but could unearth solid niche business with critical support and devoted distribs. This fourth feature by variable Gallic wonderboy Francois Ozon, 33, is his first to show a genuinely mature talent working from original material sans any gay subtext.
Now in her mid-50s, Rampling, who’s been based in Paris for the past couple of decades, hasn’t had such a role as this since David Hare’s “Paris by Night,” 12 years ago. Looking hardly a jot older, and acting relaxedly in French, she plays Marie, first seen driving to a remote summer house in western France with her husband, Jean (Bruno Cremer).
Thesps’ easy, assured playing, with only snippets of dialogue, and Ozon’s tidy, controlled direction impart the sense of a couple who are absolutely comfortable in their relationship, with affection shown in small gestures.
Jean appears a tad distant and tired, but not in a way to set off any alarm bells in Marie. Next day, he goes swimming while she lies on the beach. When she finally gets up, he has disappeared. Distraught, she alerts the authorities, but a search reveals nothing.
These opening two reels set the basis for a quietly offbeat study of personal loss that will ring true for anyone who has been through a similar situation. Ozon, working with three female scripters, literally visualizes the various stages of the central character’s grief, as she tenaciously keeps alive the memory of her husband. Done in the most natural way, without special effects, the film is both a tribute to the protag’s undying love as well as a salutary lesson in the need to unhook and move on.
At a dinner party back in Paris hosted by her friend Amanda (Alexandra Stewart), it emerges that Marie and Jean were married for 25 years. Disquietingly, Marie still speaks of Jean as if he’s alive and, after a friend, Vincent (Jacques Nolot), drives her home, Jean appears in the apartment, climbs into bed with her and later appears at breakfast. Through the sheer force of Marie’s imagination, and in the most natural way, la vie continue…
The magic of the movie lies in the way in which Ozon, treading a path that’s neither maudlin nor hysterical, manages to sustain interest in his main character. As Marie strikes up an on-off relationship with Vincent, grapples with the economic realities of a solo life, and copes with her own erotic stirrings and fantasy life, pic remains entirely centered on Rampling. It’s a performance that’s elegant without being remote, making the most of the actress’ sad, hooded eyes and hinting at an underlying self-absorption in Marie’s character that is exposed in a beautifully played later scene with her mother-in-law.
Cremer, at his most taciturn and avuncular, is excellent casting as Jean, and Stewart, as Marie’s fellow expatriate, is solidly supportive. (Both Stewart and Rampling naturally switch between French and English in scenes together.) Nolot is OK as Marie’s lover, but the role is too blandly written at times to always ring true.
Behind-camera credits are immaculate, with the clean lensing giving full space to the actors and the neatly composed look sometimes recalling Ozon’s previous “Water Drops on Burning Rocks” without its formal stylization.