Sunday, March 23, 2014

See the Sea (Regarde La Mer) (1997)

Maverick French director François Ozon really knows his art exceedingly well and makes storytelling via the medium of cinema seem so effortless, it makes one's jaw drop. Trust Ozon to make something out of near-nothingness and keep the audience glued to the screen for whatever run-time. So just when you think you can't get much out of a 50 odd minutes film with just two central characters, you find yourself hooked from the opening frame as Ozon's gripping story unfolds in an astonishingly fluid manner.

And what material does Ozon work with? Just two women as the central characters, a little baby of 10 months and a setting of a limited radius in and around a house near an idyllic, isolated beach location. No, as much as this description may somewhat remind you of Ingmar Bergman's psychological drama masterpiece "Persona", lay your doubts to rest. There is nothing mind-bending or abstract about it; just an overwhelming sense of tension, pure and simple! It wouldn't be wrong to say, that Ozon's film is more in the Hitchcockian thriller territory, but with a touch of classic French minimalism.

An English woman Sasha (Sasha Hails) tries to cope with a near lonely life with her 10 month old wailing daughter at her house by the beach. Ozon makes us familiar with the area of her residence, and pleases us with nice sights of a near private, clean beach, and blades of grass swaying in the pleasant breeze against a soothing score that sporadically appears amidst diegetic sounds. Sasha's husband is away to Paris on business and phone calls made to him mostly go unanswered. She seems to be bored, not surprisingly. Some other scenes indicate that she is in desperate need of sex! There are also indications that although terribly in love with her baby, Sasha is slightly hassled by the baby's constant need of attention.

The baby doesn't let Sasha read nor does she let her sleep in peace. She just barely manages to catch a wink at the beach whilst sunbathing. It is a wonder on Ozon's part how the baby's natural reactions and movements were captured at apt moments. Baby Samantha is extremely cherubic and adorable, and it is difficult to imagine the kind of effort it must have taken to make her act, not in the traditional sense, but as per the demand of the scene. 

With all this battling with baby care and boredom, a possible antidote to her loneliness knocks in the form of the deadpan backpacker Tatiana (Marina de Van) in search of a place to rig her tent up. Initially reluctant, but perhaps somewhat enticed upon hearing that Tatiana worked as a nanny, Sasha lets her use her huge yard. It is a matter of time before she lets Tatiana enter her home, dine with her and use her bathroom. 

However, it becomes all too obvious that something is amiss with this seemingly innocuous backpacker who assertively declares that she can't stick around in one place for more than four days and likes to move about. Tatiana is portrayed by Marina de Van, in a casting choice that couldn't have been more perfect. With an expressionless face, but creepy eyes, she seems anything but friendly, looks-wise! In some awesomely executed conversation scenes at the table, a lot becomes apparent about the personalities of the two women. 

The audience doesn't know just yet where the story is heading, but a spark of slight unrest certainly makes its way in the scene when Tatiana makes her presence felt. Sure enough, it takes shape in the fantastic exchange between the two at dinner. Sasha asks her about her wandering ways: "Are you never scared to travel alone?". Tatiana very coolly shakes her head and replies, "I do the scaring". 

Sasha quickly embraces Tatiana, despite her odd mannerisms and scatological tendencies, which are not initially apparent to her but us unsuspecting audiences are made privy to, in one shockingly revolting scene. Despite her not-so-friendly appearance, Tatiana seems to gel well with the baby and that makes Sasha much more comfortable. As the comfort grows, the camera placements get increasingly claustrophobic and uncomfortable. For instance, in the last third, in a particularly brazen conversation about child birth, the entire frame occupies the close-ups of the two women's faces alternately in dim lighting. Marina de Van's face looks doubly scary here, with those thick eyebrows and menacing eyes.

Little by little, Ozon makes us more acquainted with his characters. We are shown what kind of a mother and wife Sasha is, and while he paints a very disturbing picture of the kind of personality Tatiana is, it is still not apparent what could possibly shape up next. There lies the key that Ozon holds, the key to the door that won't open until the very end, yet no tangible clue is delivered about the outcome either. We lie in wait for something terrible to happen; because that much we know, what with such a malevolent individual making her way into the house, not everything is going to remain hunky dory really. Only it is difficult to predict what Tatiana is really up to. This state of unsettling suspension, the minutes of nail-biting suspense that seem like hours resulting from the impatience before the actual occurrence is what keeps us on the edge.

Sure enough, with the steady build-up, the culmination manages to create that jolt as it should, but Ozon being Ozon, mixes the storm in the end with the serene calm of a view of the waters and hardly any sense of panic. Brilliant!

Score: 9/10









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