Netflix-generated movie recommends are rarely helpful to me because their categories are based on commerce with people who are NOT like me or even like the people I would want to be. Evidently most people now watch videos according to divisions like “horror” or “Western” or “chick flic.” And evidently they use those categories as a way of seeing more of whatever they liked last time.
But my preferences are eclectic, mostly based on quality and challenging ideas. which are far harder to judge. How do you put them in an algorithm when they are different all the time, depending on the context? I give Netflix credit for trying to research what I like, but my preferences simply won’t go into categories and I’ve long ago given up the little star trick. Much of what makes a movie wonderful for me is the element of unexpectedness -- which is part of the reason I like foreign films so much. I’ve been hooked on movies since the first ones I saw, probably before I could walk. But I’ve been hooked on foreign films since “The River,” that marvelous evocation of Rumer Godden’s book with the same name. So I bless Netflix for giving me access to the strange, the offbeat, the provocative.
That still doesn’t point out how to ask Netflix for such movies, how to find out what exists. This last time I took recommends from Vanity Fair and, wow! What good movies these three are: “In the Bedroom,” “Under the Sand,” and “Lantana.” (Should I look for movies that have prepositional phrases for titles?)
It’s “Under the Sand” that entirely seduced me. (I’ll come back to the others.) Charlotte Rampling is always intriguing, and has become more so as she has aged. Even so fabulous a person as Catharine Deneuve has thickened and fallen into the habit of grimacing, but Rampling spells out “class” in her posture, her slenderness, her expressive but contained face with its drooped eyelids and lost lower lip, and the intelligence that shows constantly in timing, emphasis, shifts in tone. “Class” to Anglophones mostly means restraint, which requires that in such a person one must watch very closely for small signs.
The situation is simple: the director/writer had always puzzled over a real life incident in his childhood when a married couple went to the beach, the woman napped while the man swam, and the man simply disappeared into the sea. He was never found. But instead of focusing on the man, Francois Ozon, the writer/director, turns his attention to the woman. Though she reports his disappearance, she simply goes to denial. To her, he is there in fantasy, as real as when he was alive -- perhaps more devoted to her than before. The movie develops along two lines: when will she allow herself to know the truth? And what DID happen anyway? Will he come back?
But the real fascination comes from the double way I watch movies and read books: not just the actual creation but how it was made. At first Ozon just wrote a script about the actual disappearance, which is now the first part of the movie. Then he found Rampling, she was interested, and because she was such a strong presence -- mysterious in herself -- he wrote the rest of the movie around her. Also, since he was now writing about a woman, he asked a female co-writer, Emmanuèle Bernheim, to join him. In their voice-over commentary on the DVD it was soon clear why their interaction was so important.
They questioned everything from motives to metaphors, often grossly over-stating something, then pulling it back, sometimes dropping it and occasionally reinstating it in rather a different way. As an example of how subtle this is, at one point the man who drowns was gathering wood and stopped to run his hand down a tree trunk. The camera picks up another close-up tree trunk and lets the man go fuzzy. Later there is a dummy in a men’s clothing store -- just the trunk in the same bark colors.
The couple in Ozon’s memory were nudists and the beach was a nudist beach. Ozon could not ask his prominent actors to be nude, though exposing breasts is accepted, so he slipped in a nude couple on the beach as bystanders. One uses memory in various ways. The nude fact was relevant in that corpses are often identified by what they were wearing, since the flesh is profoundly changed by decomposition. But there is also the idea that this couple was exposed and alone. Images were impelling the script in Ozon’s mind, needing to be honored.
There was a great temptation to make this movie about the man, who was massive and attractive and magnetic. There might have been a succession of clues revealing he had a secret life or a fatal disease, facts that would have torn apart the woman -- made her truly crazy from betrayal, forced to face her own blindness.
There was also talk about having the second man, her first lover after the loss, be a handsome young man -- presumably an irresistible bit of candy so that she would be understandable. This was rejected. Instead there was a man more like her than her husband had been, an intellectual like her. (She is a professor with a special interest in Virginia Wolfe, who was a suicide. Should she kill herself? Had her husband killed herself?) He is gentle, generous, truly interested in her, sexy in a mature way. But he is a “lightweight” both literally when lying on top of her and more socially -- not a real “player.” Still, her husband or his appearance, not only approves but subtly participates. This helps her.
When she visits her mother-in-law, the rubber hits the road with a shock. The old woman knows that the husband was unhappy, specifically with his wife. She ransacks the previously locked office of her husband, confronts the doctor, and finds that at least the unhappiness part is true. The body is found and scientifically identified. She still resists. Then goes to the edge of the ocean, where humans often confront their inner truths, and finally admits the death. There is a man on the beach. She runs in his direction. Is she going to him? We don’t know. Is it Vincent, the pleasant lover? We don’t know.
This is a grown-up mystery, about the kind of questions we all confront throughout our lives and can rarely answer or maybe ought not, because denial can save sanity to say nothing of other nastiness. We do the best we can with what we know. If we can manage the grace and dignity of Charlotte Rampling’s character, we will have done very well indeed.