How do we process personal tragedies? How does our mind cope with them? And how do we recover our balance in life?
These are some of the serious questions addressed in the 2000 French drama Under the Sand. Written and directed by François Ozon, the film stars Charlotte Rampling and Bruno Cremer (the French title is Sous le Sable).
Charlotte Rampling has carved out a niche for herself in French films, taking advantage of her perfect fluency in the language and her willingness to take on serious dramatic roles. I greatly admired her 2005 film Heading South, an under-appreciated study of female sexual tourism.
Her attitude toward her profession is a healthy one.
“I generally don’t make films to entertain people,” she says. “I choose the parts that challenge me to break through my own barriers. A need to devour, punish, humiliate or surrender seems to be a primal part of human nature, and it’s certainly a big part of sex. To discover what normal means, you have to surf a tide of weirdness.”
This last part is most certainly true.
Under the Sand is both a character study of a woman living in denial, and an examination of the effects of grief on the soul. The tale is told starkly, without any excess background noise: we need here no glamorous scenes, background music, or distracting sub-plots. There are only scenes of human interaction, body movement, dialogue, and expression. And these are effective enough.
Married couple Marie (Charlotte Rampling) and Jean (Bruno Cremer) have been together happily for over 20 years. They have a comfortable and predictable routine, splitting their time between their apartment in the city and a small cottage in the countryside, close to the ocean.
While at their vacation house, they decide to spend a few hours at the beach. Jean announces his intention to go swimming, while Marie lies on the beach. He enters the water, and never returns.
Just like that. There is no warning, no explanation, no “drowning sequence.” He’s just gone.
We can only imagine the horror that Marie–or any person–would be feeling once this knowledge began to sink in. She reports the incident frantically to the authorities, and then hears nothing for several months.
The rest of the film consists of scenes designed to show the corrosive effects of grief on Marie’s psyche. She clearly is in denial: she keeps her husband’s study exactly as it was before he disappeared; she refuses to dispose of any of his possessions; she engages in imaginary conversations with him alone in her apartment; she speaks of him to friends as if he were still present; she even buys gifts for him.
She is in denial, of course.
Her friends are sympathetic, but sympathy begins to turn into alarm when it seems that she is unable to move on. Her attempts to date another man end badly also; she fantasizes about Jean all the time, and bluntly tells her hopeful suitor that “you don’t measure up.”
All of this is made even more poignant, to me, when I learned that Ms. Rampling had, in real life, lost a close family member to unexpected death. Clearly her acting comes from a place of convincing sincerity. There is no need to summon contrived emotions when the real ones are available to be drawn from.
Why can’t Marie move on? Why can’t she face the fact that Jean is dead? Why?
Well, because she can’t. That’s why. This is how people behave. Human beings are complex beings. We are not mechanical contrivances whose emotions can be shut off or turned on like water spigots.
I’ve seen this is my own experience. I had a client some years ago–a very successful woman–who had lost her young daughter to a sudden illness. The experience shattered her mind. She lost all interest in taking care of herself, of moving on. She gave herself over entirely to grief.
It was a terrible sight. I hope I never see such a thing again. Because watching the decomposition of the human mind under the putrefaction of grief is a ghastly process.
Every scene in Under the Sand is carefully constructed to show the decay wrought by grief. The scenes are so simple that it almost seems trite to describe them. But they are not trite. Not at all. They embody some of the most profound human truths.
Because grief is like that fungi or mold that grows and spreads, unless stopped at its inception. The dead man appears in the paying of a medical bill during a doctor’s visit; he appears when Marie tries to rent a new apartment; and he surfaces while she visits her attorney.
And this is how it is, when a loved one dies. You see his face everywhere, for a time. Even in the plate of food that the waiter puts in front of you. Everywhere.
Adding to the viewer’s sense of dislocation and insecurity is the possibility that Jean may have committed suicide. There are some hints that this may be the case, but nothing is certain. And here again we have a truth about grief: the lack of knowing. You never find out the full story. There is never any great revelation. Or at least, not often. More often, you know bits and pieces of this or that, and are left to try to make sense of the fragments.
These shattered fragments of life, complementing our own shattered psyches.
A body is found, eventually. She finally summons up the nerve to contact the morgue where her husband’s body is kept, and insists on seeing it. The examiners were not pleased with this request, knowing the sight of a body in advanced decay is not a pleasant one.
But she insists, because this woman simply must know.
And even when it is all laid out for her, she seems to accept it one minute, and reject it the next. The fragile hold on reality remains, but ever so tenuously. Because what grief does is distort those sense-perceptions needed for the day-to-day routine of life. And that is what grief is: the great Distorter.
The Great Distorter, this bastard Grief.
He is a Distorter, but he is also an Aggressor. He invades and corrupts. And the way to deal with an Aggressor is combat. Combat, and that alone.
The conclusion of the movie works so perfectly because it reminds us that one never really moves on from a great personal tragedy. I’m don’t know if I’m a big believer in the idea of the whole “stages of grief.”
That seems to me as so much buncombe. So much empty palaver. Don’t try to console me with that: noli me tangere.
Rather, exhort me to combat. Rouse me to fight the Distorter, that great poisoner and corruptor. I must fight. Must: there is no greater moral commandment in this regard. If I do not fight, I will die.
Under the Sand is a great film. It is a profound film. There is nothing ponderous or dull about it. Not one frame. It is alive, and it crackles with the flame of life, of the passion and rage that spurs us on and on to the darkest types of knowledge, to the edge of self-destruction.
Because there is no wondrous “acceptance” of grief or of tragedy. It is a burning coal that we forever carry around in our pocket, under our hats, or around our necks. The only remedy is to keep moving. To keep going. And that is the cure for grief. Not some “acceptance.” At least not for me.
Because the hot coal may lose its fire, but you are still left with a filthy cinder. The coal burns, and then the cinder soils and ruins.