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Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2002
Please, don't say it's over
By KAORI SHOJI
Here are two things you rarely see on-screen these days: 1) a happy couple in their 50s, married for 25 years and totally content with each other, and 2) a 56-year old actress who has no qualms about looking her age.
Each forms a pillar of "Sous le sable (Under the Sand)," a story that deals with loss, aging and solitude. Deals with, but doesn't solve.
Director/writer François Ozon exercises a certain discipline -- one suspects that if he had chosen to, he could have put a syrupy "Bridges of Madison County" spin on the proceedings so everyone could weep a little and go home satisfied. Instead, he quietly unfolds a tale of no-exit bereavement, pursues it as far as the character can bear it, then quickly turns his back and closes the curtains.
We are left under a barrage of painful emotions, blinking in the sudden light. Where do we go from here?
The answer to that remains a mystery, which is how Ozon and lead actress Charlotte Rampling wanted it. Rampling said in an interview that she's never interested in happy endings because she's never believed in them.
No cop-out or feel-good elements stain the astonishingly stark canvas of "Sous le sable," where misery remains immobile and concrete, untouched by outside influences.
The strength and stamina of the sadness expressed here is riveting, and it's mostly displayed via closeups of Rampling's face, which in many scenes is devoid of makeup and harshly lit. Apparently, Ozon told her he wanted to expose every facet of her maturity -- a frightening proposal to an actress, but she agreed. The result is a brilliant treasure of a film, one that explores with utter fascination the inner landscape and outer shell of an older woman.
Marie (Rampling) and Jean (Bruno Cremer) have reached that comfortable stage in a marriage when conversation is no longer necessary. Jean is a hefty bon vivant, Marie is slender and elegant. Together they depart in their little car from Paris to their seaside cottage. Together they smoke at roadside cafes. After they reach the house, they eat the simple meal Marie cooks. This is all done in companionable silence.
The next morning, the pair take off to the deserted part of the beach where there are no lifeguards. Jean goes for a swim, and Marie decides to nap. Jean does not return. The coast guards conclude that he must have drowned. Thus begins Marie's descent into grief, all the more crushing since she cannot accept the reality of Jean's absence.
She returns to Paris alone, resumes her job teaching English literature at a university and generally behaves as though Jean is still living in their house. This delusion continues even when she takes a lover (Jacques Nolot) and he comes over to stay the night. When the police call to say that a body resembling Jean has turned up on the beach, she refuses to believe it. Yet, if she's right and Jean did not die on the beach, then it follows that he abandoned her deliberately because he had been unhappy with her. Marie becomes confused. Then she discovers that Jean had been taking antidepressants for the few months before his disappearance.
This is Rampling's movie all the way, and each frame is a tribute to her from the director, who draws out with amazing insight the emotions, sexuality and beauty of an older woman.
Especially poignant is when Marie wears a new evening dress to go to a dinner, then returns home alone. She sits down on the divan and closes her eyes. Men's hands appear from nowhere, take off her shoes and caress her face and clothed body. She gives into these fantasy sensations with abandon, smiling as she does so. Then the hands disappear, and the camera focuses on the wrinkles on the front of her dress. Marie then looks up and imagines Jean standing in the doorway, jealously asking about the dinner.
The story was inspired by an incident in the director's childhood: At a seaside resort where his family habitually spent their summers, an elderly man went for a swim and never came back. His wife waited for him the entire vacation, then finally packed up and left alone. Between Ozon and Rampling, they tell us this fact: The loss of a spouse in late life is, in many ways, the most painful loss of all.