François Ozon’s Under
the Sand , from a screenplay by Mr. Ozon with the collaboration of Emmanuèle
Bernheim, Marina de Van and Marcia Romano, is about as good as it gets in the
current crapshoot of moviegoing. This is to say that the screen is awash with
unconventional attractions that are original without being overwhelming.
Everyone claims that he or she is looking for something different, but when it
actually comes along it often seems too strange, too distant, too downright
disconcerting to give one the old familiar chills down one’s spine. It turns
out that all we really want are the same old songs with a few notes switched
here and there.
Under the Sand , as
a case in point, deals with the familiar theme of bereavement, but in such a
peculiar way that we are never sure to the end whether we are drifting into the
realms of fantasy, horror or wild romance. Marie Drillon (Charlotte Rampling)
and her husband Jean (Bruno Cremer) are a longtime married couple who have just
begun their holiday vacation at their house near the seashore. Their moving-in
routine has become so ritualized that they have little small talk to share. At
bedtime, they exchange the perfunctory salutations before plunging into total
Nothing seems particularly wrong-and the usual movie
expectations virtually demand some rupture in the routine to make the couple
dramatically and psychologically accessible. The rupture is not long in coming.
One day at the beach, Maria is sunbathing lazily while Jean rubs lotion on her
back. Suddenly, there is a foreshadowing shot of Jean suddenly raising his head
to look at the ocean, as if it had never before looked so ominously inviting.
He tells Marie that he is going for a swim, and asks her casually if she will
join him. She replies half-asleep that she prefers to take a nap instead. When
she awakens, Jean is nowhere to be found. The few bathers on the beach have not
seen him. Nearby lifeguards and the police are notified; life boats and a
helicopter are summoned. No Jean anywhere.
In the days and weeks that follow, Marie strangely refuses
to accept her loss by grieving in the accustomed manner. She simply talks and
acts as if Jean is still alive. She pours coffee for him in the morning and
talks to his visualized apparition at night. We learn that she teaches an
English literature course at a university and is currently lecturing on
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves , which
prompts a conversation at one point about Woolf’s suicidal death by drowning.
At a dinner party, her friend Amanda (Alexandra Stewart) introduces Marie to
Vincent (Jacques Nolot), a publisher who forcibly kisses her on the way home,
apparently offending her. Later that night, she discusses the kiss with “Jean,”
who seems more amused than outraged.
Marie eventually goes to bed with Vincent, but she never
fully accepts him as a replacement for Jean. There are clues everywhere that
Jean may have committed suicide because of unrevealed medical problems. Jean’s
mother blames Marie for her son’s “disappearance,” since she refuses to believe
that Jean could have committed suicide, or even that he drowned. She insists
instead that Jean has left Marie because she was unable to give him children.
Finally, Marie is confronted with the discovery of a drowned
body, which she perversely refuses to verify as that of her husband. Instead,
she returns to the beach and begins digging dementedly “under the sand” until
she is distracted by a figure in the distance. Thus, Under the Sand remains tantalizingly open-ended to the last shot.
What is truly remarkable about the film is that it treats a
character in her mid-50’s, played by an actress in her mid-50’s, with the
full-bodied sensuality usually reserved on the screen since time immemorial for
much younger female characters and actresses. Even in her youth, Ms. Rampling
was ahead of her time-and much ahead of her censorious critics-in unveiling her
womanly essence to project a character’s sexual obsessions, particularly in
Liliana Cavani’s still controversial The
Night Porter (1974). For giving this story-and Ms. Rampling-center stage,
Mr. Ozon is to be wholeheartedly commended.
Life With Father
James Ryan’s The Young
Girl and the Monsoon , from his own screenplay, seems to be consciously
constructed around the number 13. A 39-year-old, midlife-crisis-afflicted,
single-parent protagonist, Hank (Terry Kinney), finds himself torn between the
seemingly conflicting demands of his contentious 13-year-old daughter,
Constance (Ellen Muth), and Erin (Mili Avital), his increasingly impatient
26-year-old girlfriend. After a year’s courtship, Erin has been kept from
meeting Constance because Hank wants to protect his child. Erin retorts, “From
what? What am I gonna do? Boil her bunny rabbit?”
This hip rejoinder confirms the fact that this is a movie in
which no attraction is fatal in view of Mr. Ryan’s clear preference for
domestic realism over domestic melodrama. Indeed, Mr. Ryan’s realism extends to
his anti-charismatic casting of balding Mr. Kinney as Hank. Mr. Kinney has the
warm, worn face of a real human being-in fact, I sometimes couldn’t remember it
from scene to scene. Fortunately, Mr. Ryan has given Hank some on-screen
stature as an ace photographer on the verge of receiving major awards in his
profession, and has people like his sexy editor, Giovanna (Diane Venora), sing
his praises while exhorting him to work harder.
Hence, a potentially corny conflict is established between
his responsibilities to himself as an artist and to his daughter as a parent.
The daughter starts off as a tedious pain, but Ms. Muth gives Constance at her
most aggravating a poignant undertone of vulnerability and fear of being
abandoned. Giovanna, the kind of part that would have been performed painlessly
in the past by an Eve Arden type, is endowed by Ms. Venora with the pathos of a
40-year-old woman listening to all the ticking clocks in a world still working
on double-standard time, inasmuch as she is judged too old for Hank, her
Hank is far from sympathetic as he uses his daughter as an
excuse to ward off the desperate advances of both Giovanna and Erin, the latter
being pushed away when she expresses her yearning to have a child. Yet somehow
Mr. Ryan steers the story to the most charmingly whimsical of happy
endings-charming as well as appropriate, because Mr. Ryan’s narrative structure
is too flimsy and arbitrary to sustain the supposedly postmodern ambitiousness
of an open-ended or meaningfully miserable ending.
The X-factor in the film is the enormous talent of a cast
that can build big moments out of unpromisingly small premises. This is a film
in which the who takes precedence over the what and the how. The strange title
of the film is derived from one of Constance’s early tirades against her father’s
seemingly passive attitude toward the suffering caused by an Asian
monsoon-suffering he photographed ever so beautifully. God help me, I can see
Gangs of Hong Kong
Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide , from a screenplay by Koan
Hui and Mr. Tsui, is my first brush with this prolific exemplar of Hong Kong’s
high-octane action cinema, and though I feel hopelessly illiterate in this
genre, I must confess that I suspect something going on here not too far
removed from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, which also baffled me at first,
or at least until a friend explained them to me.
A confusingly convoluted plot is driven by a dynamic mise en scene full of angles and
altitudes and endlessly switching points of view. There are also frequent
spasms of cynical wit. In present day Hong Kong, two desperately money-hungry
young men meet on the street and become friends. Tyler (Nicholas Tse) is a
loner who’s trying to make a killing so he can skip town and find paradise in a
far-away South American remoteness. After a stormy encounter with Ah Jo (Cathy Tsui), a sassy undercover
policewoman, he discovers that he has made her pregnant. Needing quick cash for
his impending fatherhood, he joins a bodyguard company, but when he tries to
give Ah Jo money, she rejects his help and tells him to stay away.
Jack (Wu Bai) is Chinese, 35, and has come to Hong Kong
after serving as a mercenary in a Brazilian government paramilitary group
fighting the rebels. In the two years since he escaped from Brazil, he has met
and married Ah Hui (Candy Lo), a young woman who’s about to give birth to their
first child. Ah Hui, however, has a past of her own: Her long-estranged father,
Hong, is the head of a powerful Hong Kong criminal syndicate.
As Tyler and Jack keep bumping into each other in
increasingly unlawful activities, they find themselves more and more on
opposing sides in a city that seems to be dominated by a variety of gangs or
triads. The gunfights, which feature an array of automatic weapons with
telescopic sights, come to resemble modern warfare between organized armies.
The police seem helpless to prevent the carnage, particularly amid all the
official disguises adopted by the triad members.
The climax of the film dramatizes the delivery of Ah Hui’s
baby in the midst of murderous gunfire. Tyler, Jack’s friend to the end,
performs heroic deeds to ensure the baby’s safe birth, and therefore the baby
is named after him. A modicum of order is finally restored in what I imagine is
a classic of pop entertainment for audiences who can follow the romantic
Alexandre Dumas–like intrigues speeded up to insane velocities. It certainly
isn’t Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -the
women here don’t seem to be able to do anything except have babies.
Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970), featuring the bisexual doppelgänger antics of
Mick Jagger and James Fox, disgusted critics and audiences three decades ago.
Our disgust level has gotten much higher since then. It’s playing at Film Forum