There's a scene early in the film when Marie (Charlotte Rampling) and her portly husband Jean (Bruno Cremer) are vacationing in their isolated country home. Marie is washing up and while looking in the mirror, notices signs of aging on her otherwise beautiful face. She notices, stares, then uses some cream to try and hide those signs. The scene is a clear indication of Marie's particular character trait that would later threaten to make things difficult for her in the course of the story; her inherent inability in coming to terms with the fact that nothing lasts forever; that essentially everything in life is part of an indefinite phase, something that would inevitably pass her by at some point of time. Be it her age, beauty or life itself, more so of people close to her.
And in what follows, in a tragic twist to an idyllic country vacation, while Marie relaxes and dozes off on a near private beach, her husband who goes out swimming disappears without a trace! Marie wakes up and finds her husband hasn't returned yet, a distraught look on her face, quite tangible. Perhaps she regrets dozing off. Nobody seems to have seen him, although there hardly were any people to notice him on the virgin beach anyway. The coast guards at a shore nearby are alerted, police helicopters are brought in, enquiries are made, but alas, Jean is never found.
Time passes by, perhaps a year, and we cut to Marie socializing with some friends over dinner. Yet in any conversation she seems to refer to her husband in a present tense, while the others exchange strange glances. The viewer is baffled as well, then, wondering if Jean eventually did come back. And then, Amanda (Alexandra Stewart) her best friend mentions a psychiatrist!
This dinner scene sums up the gist of this splendid study of grief, loss and the incapacity of some individuals to deal with it. François Ozon's "Under the Sand" has the exquisite Charlotte Rampling as its backbone and her flawless performance and also Ozon's handling of this character in entirely convincing situations ensure that the viewer stays transfixed to the screen, eagerly waiting in anticipation to learn how Marie's life would shape up post the tragedy.
Marie has last seen her husband on the beach saying he was going for a swim. And then...nothing! No contact from him, no body either. It is not surprising then, that she isn't entirely convinced that he may be dead. Although deep within, she knows she may never see him again, yet a part of her continues to be in denial. A closure is what is missing. Whenever someone gives her odd looks or reminds her that something happened to her husband she quickly brushes it off.
At social gatherings, she continues to discuss Jean like he is still a part of her life. She goes home to her empty apartment and has hallucinations of her husband still living with her. She goes to bed with him as usual and has breakfast in the mornings too. Later when Amanda's kind friend Vincent (Jacques Nolot) shows interest in Marie, she imagines having a conversation about him with her husband, as if trying to convince herself that her husband approves of the possibility of a new man in her life!
Ozon writes some of the scenes like a pro and with Rampling complementing with her tremendous performance, every frame emerges as a winner. One scene for instance in which she dines out with Vincent, comes back home and imagines there are two sets of hands comforting and caressing her is one of the most beautifully written scenes ever, aptly depicting Marie's state of mind. Your heart goes out to Marie, so accurately portrayed by Rampling in a nuanced act that never shows her breaking down or getting hysterical. There is a definite sadness, a melancholy on her face and a sorrow in her heart, which she tries to mask with a smile and Rampling makes it seem so effortless, you can't help but applaud her acting skills. One also feels for the handsome, middle-aged Vincent who tries to communicate with Marie about her loss, but she just snubs him and belittles him, even comparing him with her late husband.
A standout winning aspect of "Under the Sand" is how Ozon, via simple scenes and not much dialog manages to communicate the feeling that he intends to, to his audience. It is the feeling experienced by his lead character Marie. While we do not know the full extent of the relationship of Marie with Jean, there is no denying that Marie loves him dearly, so much so that she is unable to let go. We do not know Jean's past, so whether he accidentally drowned, committed suicide, or just went missing from her life, is a mystery to the audience as much as it is to poor Marie who takes great pain to find out what her husband was going through during the time of his disappearance.
In the third act, we do get a hint of what might actually have happened that fateful morning at the beach. One of the scenes hinting at the outcome is a wonderful conversation between Marie and her mother-in-law. However, Ozon's film is not about the mystery of Jean's disappearance. It is more about the aftermath of his disappearance and how it affects his beloved wife Marie. Ozon wants his viewer to feel the absence of a closure as much as Marie does! And hence, he maintains an ambiguity surrounding Jean's vanishing. And in that lies the soul of this wonderful film that makes no pretense of what it is trying to portray and emerges a winner making such complex character studies seem like a walk in the park.
Make "Under the Sand" a top priority item in your watchlist. Along with being a riveting psychological drama and a near-perfect portrayal of loss and loneliness that will haunt you for quite a while, it is also a lesson in why one should try and leave a tragic loss behind, bury it deep under the sand and move on, for that's the way life is and the only thing permanent, is change.