A Husband Vanishes, a Wife Denies It

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

fade-out darkness.

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

contemporary.

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

her point.

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.

Repeat Performance

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

May 11-17. A Husband Vanishes, a Wife Denies It