Recently I viewed for the first time The Hours (2002), an excruciating film that, in order to express (according to the filmmaker, Stephen Daldrey) the power of books, had all sorts of characters making decisions and living their lives under the influence of characters in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. Among other things, I thought the premise stupid and farfetched; I locate the power of literature elsewhere. Part of the problem with the film, it seems to me, is that the “relationship” between Woolf’s novel and these later fictional lives is either (or both) far too self-aware and selfconscious or deterministic and fatalistic. Also, a good deal of contrivance has enabled the script and the film to conjure these echoes of Mrs. Dalloway in the lives of characters unpenned by Woolf. A more ridiculous film I haven’t seen in many a moon.
Now I’ve viewed a slightly earlier film that marvelously integrates a Woolf novel, in this case the 1931 The Waves, with the film’s present-day main character and her very complicated emotional life. This is François Ozon’s Sous le sable, or Under the Sand, which, like The Hours, prominently refers to Woolf’s own suicide by drowning. However, Ozon’s film is as subtle and complex, and delicate and elusive, as Daldrey’s Hours is literal, shallow and in-your-face. Moreover, while Daldrey’s Hours is as cold as a corpse’s forehead, Ozon’s Under the Sand is thrillingly alive. It’s the most sensual and erotic film I’ve seen since Christopher Miles’s The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970)—and, this time, there isn’t a virgin in sight. Indeed, Under the Sand, also, is as smart and grown-up as The Hours is adolescent. It draws us in, as do the ocean waves—a motif punctuating the film possibly indicating the suicides of both main characters.
The protagonist is Marie Drillon, a British-born woman living in France with her husband of more than 25 years, Jean Drillon, who is French. Virginia Woolf’s life and work, the film implies, help bridge the cultural uprooting and transplantation. Marie is a college English professor; currently she is teaching Woolf’s The Waves, which she reads aloud, in English, with passion. The Waves is an experimental book, what one might call a subliminal novel, whose characters are represented by interior monologues over a breadth of time, from childhood schooldays to old age. One of these characters is Bernard, at this point middle-aged, as Marie translates the following to her class:
‘And time,’ said Bernard, ‘lets fall its drop. The drop that has formed on the roof of the soul falls. On the roof of my mind time, forming, lets fall its drop. Last week, as I stood shaving, the drop fell. I, standing with my razor in my hand, became suddenly aware of the merely habitual nature of my action (this is the drop forming) and congratulated my hands, ironically, for keeping at it. Shave, shave, shave, I said. Go on shaving. The drop fell. All through the day’s work, at intervals, my mind went to an empty place, saying, “What is lost? What is over?” And “Over and done with,” I muttered, “over and done with,” solacing myself with words. People noticed the vacuity of my face and the aimlessness of my conversation. The last words of my sentence tailed away. And as I buttoned on my coat to go home I said more dramatically, “I have lost my youth.”
Like Bernard, Marie is past the middle of her life, and she has another reason, besides, to be in private turmoil. Something has happened to Jean. Something has happened to her marriage.
On vacation, at the beach, while Marie was sunning and napping, Jean went for a swim. When she awoke, Marie couldn’t find him. Neither could anyone else. Had Jean drowned? If so, was it accidental, or was it suicide? Did Jean, as his mother maliciously opines, simply disappear in order to start a new life elsewhere, having grown “bored” with Marie and their childless union? Talk about an absence of closure.
Nor is that all. Marie’s friends, especially her best friend, another transplanted Brit, Amanda, have good cause to be very worried about Marie. Marie admits to hearing voices lately. She refuses to accept that Jean almost certainly drowned. She continues to speak of themselves as a couple; she continues to refer to Jean in the present tense, noting that he “travels a lot” for his job and they still have an active sex life. Indeed, we ourselves see Jean materialize at home in Marie’s midst. Sometimes she closes her eyes tight to will his appearance; sometimes he is just there, waiting for Marie. Marie is dating someone now, Vincent, but she rationalizes this as her first extramarital affair. One night, it’s Jean’s disembodied hands that are all over Marie, who is lying on their bed. He is taking off her shoes, caressing her feet and her legs, and then her face, with a pair of hands, somehow, on both sides, while her own hands dig at her dress between her legs. A thus strangely doubled Jean, as well as the masturbatory implication in effect tripling him, reflects Marie’s insistence on contesting the reality of his absence. (Marie’s dress is red. A motif throughout the film, red represents Marie’s assertion of will.) In childhood, Rhoda, one of the “voices” in The Waves, speaks of having “thin” dreams, in which she is “fearless” and “defiant,” that others, for instance her classroom teacher, have the power to interrupt and “knock down.” Tenacious, Marie is holding onto her Jean, which is often translated as his holding onto her. “Hold me tight,” she says to Jean in bed one night after his disappearance. She insists on Jean in the present tense so that her friends won’t interrupt and knock down the “reality” of him that she has reconstructed. Only Amanda has dared to suggest to Marie that she should see a psychiatrist.
I do not much like the emphasis given in the U.S. to the concept of denial. This psychological idea reduces the range of possible interpretations of an action or instance of behavior to a single interpretation. Thus if some woman says she has committed a cruel act, she has done so; if, in response to an accusation that she has done so, she denies having done so, her denial reveals that she cannot cope with the truth that she has committed this cruel act. The possibility that she in fact did not commit the act in question has been eliminated. This is absurd—as absurd as the notion that someone’s declaration of some act is tantamount to his or her actual culpability; people say all the time that they have done “bad” things that they haven’t done, out of guilt, confusion, uncertainty, a need or desire to accommodate their accuser, a desire simply to end the discussion or dispute. Neither confession nor denial escapes ambiguity. But people sometimes are “in denial” of something that either they have done or has happened to them. In our sane opposition to the emphasis given this idea of “denial” in some quarters (for instance, the very confused, self-serving realm of American television talk show host Oprah Winfrey), though, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Sometimes, the notion that someone is “in denial” applies. Such is the case with Marie Drillon in Under the Sand.
But of what is she in denial? Her husband’s almost certain death. But is that all? Is it possible that this denial is the outward sign of a series, a complex, of denials?
The film opens with a quickly, emphatically sketched portrait of the Drillons as a wonderfully happy, compatible couple. No wonder they have been married for so long. Two partners couldn’t be more “meant” for one another. This is the best of all possible unions. Surely you get the point. Ozon opens the film by implying a troubled marriage; his strategy is irony, in particular, too great an insistence on the contrary. He has also established the subjectivity of his presentation of the material. What we see at the beginning of the film may be Marie’s view of her and Jean’s wedded bliss. Truths will tumble out during her emotional journey following Jean’s disappearance—for instance, unbeknownst to her, Jean was feeling depressed and taking prescribed medication. (Did these pills, if taken before his last swim, play a part similar to that of the stones in Virginia Woolf’s pockets during her watery suicide?) Under the Sand, though, isn’t primarily about Jean’s state of mind. Is it possible that Jean’s depression is, at some level, the projection of Marie’s?
Marie seems so happy; what reason would there be for unhappiness beneath the surface—as it were, under the sand? (At times, The Hours or no, Ozon’s film seems to be about a couple like the Dalloways.) For starters, since Jean’s mother points out Jean’s disappointment at not having a family, might not Marie, beneath her persistent smile and ready chuckle, be similarly disappointed? This is a film without children, except for a photograph in Vincent’s apartment, of him and someone who is likely his daughter, and the young persons who assist in the search for the missing Jean. One of these persons, perhaps twenty years old, sits in her class one day, perhaps accompanying his girlfriend. Once she notices the boy’s presence, Marie, discombobulated, ends class early. Outside the lecture hall, in the hallway, the boy addresses her, reminding her of their earlier acquaintance. She will have none of it. She denies she is that person; not once has she ever been on that beach. This is an emotionally complex event, for Marie is, in effect, denying her connection to Jean, the center of her life. (At least, after his disappearance!) One might add as well that Marie’s students, visible in the one classroom scene, may be child substitutes for her, in addition, of course, to everything else that they are, including her idolizers and champions.
Incidentally, the boy is gorgeous; he is the one handsome male character in the film. Given the film’s subjectivism, isn’t it possible that his good looks and trim, fit physique owe their origins to this connection between him and Jean, for whom he helped search? Isn’t his healthy, handsome appearance, on one level, Marie’s reconstruction of homely, overweight Jean in a youthful, attractive form?
This kid isn’t the only one who looks fit. So does Marie. Almost every morning, before work, Marie works out in a local gym. At one point she discloses that in her youth she was an athlete, but, when she married Jean, she had to adjust to the lifestyle of a Frenchman, who loves good food and good wine. The comment, on the surface, reveals Marie’s loving capacity to adopt a new country and to adapt to it. Marie, currently, is spectacularly trim and fit; no middle-age sagging here, let me tell you. To me, this is telling; her working out connects her with her earlier self—and with England, from which her marriage to Jean has separated her. Thus I hear in her acceptance of Jean’s lifestyle of generous food and drink, however faintly, a note of discontent. Indeed, I find it representing Marie’s rupture from her homeland and all the familiarity that this encompassed. Under the surface, Marie may have been treading water, constantly coping with the wrenched nature of her circumstance. There was probably no discussion about this matter from the start of the marriage. Marie, in marrying Jean, would almost certainly move to his country; and, in any case, it would have been a hardship for whoever moved. But Jean, I think, would not have shrunk from expressing the hardship; as a woman, Marie would have had to be Virginia Woolf, or someone very straightforward like Woolf, to voice her difficulty, her constant struggle to assimilate. Marie has kept a great deal in, covering it with a smile. I think that we may put it this way: Marie has been in denial of a very difficult circumstance in her life for a very long time.
Marie’s teaching English in France is, of course, another way for her to patch over this rupture between homeland and adopted homeland. Moreover, each time Marie reverts to English, we are reminded of her fractured existence.
Marie’s keeping fit does more than reconnect her, imaginatively, with her birth country. Isn’t it also at some level a rebuke to Jean? Keep in mind that we are speaking here of a loving woman who wouldn’t for the world deride her spouse for his going to seed. After his disappearance, however, she does mention that Jean promised to join her at the gym; and, in one of those post-disappearance encounters of theirs, when she asks if she can fix him something to eat, and he says he isn’t hungry, she responds: “Good. You will lose a little weight.” Given the connection drawn between her current fitness and her athletic past (incidentally, as a competitive swimmer!) in England, isn’t this a revelation of Marie’s unhappiness—not misery; unhappiness—in her marriage?
Obviously, I’m not suggesting these possibilities because I think the contrary is the case. At one (glorious) point in the film, Marie, making love with Vincent, breaks into laughter, explaining that he is so light and she is not used to this. She is referring to Jean’s heft. When she later tells Vincent that he “doesn’t measure up” to Jean, the irony struck me that Marie has expended great energy in rationalizing her unexpressed difficulties with Jean as a lover. (Of course, this is not how Vincent could possibly “receive” any of this.) This is the point: Marie, here, is rating sex not according to the pleasure of the lovemaking, whatever that might be (how can we judge? we’re watching people in a movie), but according to other issues in her life. More generally, the film is suggesting, happiness is a state of mind that renders events “happy” or otherwise. How we experience things may have little or nothing to do with whatever we experience. Sex is an especially sore point because its physicality argues that the mind may be excluded, but the question persists whether the mind can be excluded from any human activity, including sex. I think not. I also think that every consideration of sex jeopardizes and reduces every experience of sex. Sex may be one thing that we should just let be.
The joy of sex for the Drillons is not irrelevant here; it’s important. It’s in fact more important than usual because of the difficulties that it must overcome. While women are hankering after that perfect experience with a buff body, men just want to love, and make love, and get close. Of course, women are often reacting to what they believe, erroneously, are the contrary feelings of men, and their error is almost totally due to the wrong impression that men stupidly convey. Let’s say that Marie’s discontent may be grounded in what she perceives to be Jean’s discontent, and his discontent may be grounded in what he perceives to be her discontent. A couple cannot “work on” love together when each partner insists that there is no problem and claims contentment for herself or himself.
Marie, it seems to me, is dealing with another problem. Jean’s afterlife appearances, while satisfying, present problems. One, obviously, is this: how real is he and, by contrast, how unreal might he have been before his disappearance? We must ask here at least two questions: (1) How much is Jean, now, a function of Marie’s desire for him to be what she wants him to be?—ironically, one of the eternal questions men have regarding their beloveds; and (2) Where is Marie in control of Jean’s appearances and where is she not? The thing about these appearances for the viewer, whenever or however they occur, is how material—how corporeal—they are. To be sure, this befits Jean’s animal girth. But it leads elsewhere, besides.
After his disappearance, each time we see Jean we may be seeing him in an even more fleshly manifestation than Marie does; and each time this happens, we are more and more drawn into the “reality” of her current existence. We, of course, retain a measure of objectivity to counter this subjectivity; but that’s not the point. Increasingly, we have to call upon this objectivity to restore to the film what we regard as a sense of reality. This peculiarly implicates us in “Marie’s world,” into which, like Rhoda’s schoolteacher in Woolf’s novel, we must constantly intrude ourselves in order to achieve a “correction” of Marie’s reception of reality.
In a sense, then, we the viewers are at odds with Marie; she and the rest of us are engaged in a contest for primacy of interpretation. Marie wins. Let me explain how this occurs and what the occurrence ultimately means.
When the police telephone her to let her know that they have finally uncovered the drowned body that they believe establishes Jean’s death, Marie is once again “thrown.” How can her willed world of reconstructed reality continue? Simply, it can’t and, momentarily, it doesn’t. Where is Jean? Suddenly, Marie cannot conjure him or invoke his presence in their home. It is this development that precipitates her visit to her mother-in-law, whom she has been avoiding for months. At the police station, however, Marie has her day. Jean’s body, she is informed, is putrefied beyond identification; the head, green like the rest of whatever the police have now, has also swollen beyond recognition. However, the match-up of her mother-in-law’s and Jean’s DNA, as well as Jean’s dental records, establishes to a point of 90% certainty that the thing—it can’t even be called a corpse anymore—once belonged to Jean. The police ask: Will you identify the shorts and the wristwatch that were found on Jean that you have already described to us in detail? Marie will do this, but only after she views the swollen, autopsied, partially mutilated cadaver—a sight, deemed as being likely traumatic for her, that the police had wished to spare her. Surgically masked, Marie views the no-longer-Jean; she is visibly shaken, disgusted, sickened, and the two police officials, responding both to the cadaver and to her, act in this instance as our surrogates. (It should be noted, however, that Ozon, showing good taste, doesn’t show the cadaver.) Marie, having thus harrowed hell, is poised to reassert her paradise. The blue trunks? Yes, they look like Jean’s. The wristwatch? She laughs. It’s not Jean’s! The police counter: Look again, Mme Drillon; the watch matches exactly the description you gave us. Marie counter-counters: I ought to know; I bought Jean his watch. Officially, then, the identification sinks. As the potential widow, Marie holds the decisive measure of power. It will cost her. At the bank, Jean’s assets will remain frozen, inaccessible to her. She will continue not being able to get on with her life. Marie’s shocking announcement at the police station will cost her even more than that.
One of the themes of The Waves, one that is especially relevant to Rhoda, the character in the novel with which Marie most closely identifies (if often finding in her, ironically, a negative role model that she must resist becoming), is this: the extinction of self with which life can threaten one. Since childhood, Rhoda’s defensive strategy has been to “lie” and “prevaricate”—deny, if you will. Indeed, Rhoda has always felt that she had much to defend herself against. She explains: “The world is entire, and I am outside of it, crying, ‘Oh save me, from being blown for ever outside the loop of time!’” A childhood experience of Rhoda’s connects with the use in the film of the word cadaver, at the police station, with reference to the drowned Jean. It isn’t at the beach but in a garden: “in the middle, cadaverous, awful, lay the grey puddle in the courtyard, when, holding an envelope in my hand, I carried a message. I came to the puddle. I could not cross it. Identity failed me. We are nothing, I said, and fell. I was blown like a feather, I was wafted down tunnels. Then very gingerly, I pushed my foot across. I laid my hand against a brick wall. I returned very painfully, drawing myself back into my body over the grey, cadaverous space of the puddle. This is life then to which I am committed.” Seeing herself as vulnerable, Rhoda thus imagines a means of negotiating with her weakness to take some measure of control of her life. This is Rhoda’s way; it’s also Marie’s way. Since childhood, Rhoda has felt unable to assert an identity because of the others, even in her own group of friends, with whom her identity had to contend. In middle age, she abandons her sometime lover, and the group to which they both belong, in order to pursue a path of travel. By denying Jean’s death, and in particular by doing so officially in front of authorities, Marie, however differently, is also going her own way.
Because the film has implicated us in her fantasies, Marie’s way turns out to be our own. The film ends brilliantly, with Marie again on the beach. Squeezing a handful of sand, and thus discovering there is nothing “under the sand” but more sand (more lies, more illusions, more need to apply will to arrive at “substance”), Marie turns her head to espy, down the beach, a figure that attracts and draws her. It’s Jean; surely it’s Jean. But really now there is no question, for the final shot—a long shot of Marie running down the beach to whoever—represents Marie’s drop down the rabbit hole, her passage to the realm of Jean’s reconstructed materiality. Ozon doesn’t complete the action, retaining an element of ambiguity, I suppose, but the upshot is that Marie is captured in the expression of her will and desire to reinvent reality according to her fantasy of an untroubled marriage.
This is a terrific film. Working from a script by himself and three female collaborators, Emmanuèle Bernheim, Marina de Van and Marcia Romano (hence, the conviction of the female perspective woefully absent from the piece of crap that Daldrey slapped together), Ozon has managed the seemingly impossible, sustaining (at the heartfelt level) the theme of loss of a loved one while also exploring blissfully lovelier, more intricate possibilities. Indeed, loss isn’t even a necessary part of the ideas that this remarkable film generates; any occasion is relevant where we believe we receive reality when in fact we are calling upon a wishful substitute in order to pursue our prerogatives or sense of things. This takes in a huge amount of human territory.
All the actors are fine, but Charlotte Rampling, light-sensitive in her scale of emotions, achieves here the peak of her artistry. She is superb. Even her (pardon) haggard appearance contributes to the expressiveness of her work, for it suggests the toll that Marie’s mental manipulations require. Throughout the film, it’s Rampling down the beach that every adult male viewer has been perpetually running towards. Perfect, this, in terms of the film’s theme; however things appear, Marie is in pursuit of Marie and identity. Rampling makes her our irreplaceable surrogate.
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