(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)
Don’t get me wrong – I love ambiguity. It’s a rare movie that’s not better off for a dose of it. But at a certain point, ambiguity turns into evasiveness, and I’m not sure that’s as productive an attribute. The greatest directors are frequently restrained to the point of mystery – they understand that the complexity of the human condition makes a mockery of over-assertiveness. Their greatness is more about how they explore than about what they find. Except, maybe, for true pessimists. It’s surely easier to be definitive about the darkness than the light. Which is maybe why Alfred Hitchcock’s films have more great endings than just about anyone else’s.
Mystery, no doubt
I liked a line that David Thomson wrote about Robert Bresson in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema – “Mystery there is in his work, but no doubt.” Meaning that although Bresson is “a great director…no other great director seems less intrigued by cinema itself…Bresson’s is a cinema of demonstration, so broad in its consequences that its wordly narrowness is made irrelevant.” Thomson retained that last description in the latest edition of his book, but removed the sentence about mystery and doubt – perhaps now considering it too trite a summarization of such a master. Or maybe he realized that, in a different way, it might as easily be applied to Antonioni, Godard or numerous others.
Several recent movies have been superb at sowing ambiguity, but they fail to find their shape, meaning that in the worst case their qualities come to resemble gimmicks. Some would place Mulholland Drive in this category, although as I wrote a few months ago, that film ultimately seemed to me almost more coherent than anything else released last year.
After a long delay, Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand recently opened here. The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a woman whose husband disappears while on vacation. It seems he may have drowned, but there’s no body, and she doesn’t accept his death. She continues to talk about him in the present tense, and imagines his presence when she’s alone at home. Gradually the evidence mounts that he is indeed dead, and sometimes she seems on the verge of acceptance, but then her faith, or her self-delusion, takes over again.
Under the Sand
The film is supremely poised, and takes much of its tone from Rampling’s classic, sculptured beauty. She gives a performance of great nuance, accommodating numerous interpretations with equal-minded finesse. At times, the psychological choreography of the film is quite dazzling. Towards the end there’s a moment when you think she’s finally given up, then she bursts into laughter. Moments later she’s crying on the beach, then she reverses again. When you dissect it, it has an experimental if not arbitrary aspect to it, but Rampling provides immense coherence.
But in itself, however well mounted, this doesn’t inherently amount to more than an elaborate guessing game. Beyond that, what does it all mean? The most obvious interpretation would turn on feminism. Rampling’s insistence on interpreting her own reality represents the ultimate transgression. It’s clear from the film that it’s not a matter of pining for a lost utopia – the marriage seems stable and comfortable, but also largely silent and cast in routine. Her state may not have been particularly liberated, but in insisting on maintaining it even when it’s been snatched from her, she almost makes it so. At the same time though, there’s enough genuine weakness and emotion in the film that it never seems like a theoretical exercise.
But this kind of project no longer seems particularly radical. The very same day I watched Under the Sand, I watched Carl Dreyer’s 1943 Day of Wrath – about a young woman who transgresses her strict seventeenth century society and ends up denounced as a witch. Although the film has a whole set of thematic and social concerns that Under the Sand doesn’t share, it could nevertheless be read in much the way I just described – as depicting the pitfalls of female self-determination. And that’s just the other film I saw that day – hundreds more could be read in a similar way.
Beyond this, you would have to resign yourself to the absence of explicit meaning, and take Under the Sand as purely an aesthetic construct. It has enough beauty and flair to make that viable. It’s certainly possible to regard the details of the narrative as incidental, to step back from what individual scenes might or not mean, to look at the film as a kind of meditation on doubt and memory and desire. It’s difficult though, because the film looks and smells and sounds like it’s telling a story. You can’t easily luxuriate in it in the abstract way that you might a piece of music or a sculpture – the pull of the next scene is too strong.
We were Soldiers
The very fact that the film can prompt such musings is, of course, part of its achievement. Compare it to We were Soldiers, the big movie that opened here on the same weekend as Under the Sand. We were Soldiers, a Vietnam war epic, is also well executed – the equal of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down in the authenticity of its battle scenes. Given how bars get raised, I suspect that’s already a moot point, and that there may never again be a war movie that doesn’t equal those two films in authenticity. The grisliness of We were Soldiers (I’m thinking in particular of a depiction of a burning face) is especially chilling though in comparison to the film’s earlier piety (an unusual number of prayer scenes).
Also like those other two films, We were Soldiers treads a safe line in its attitude to war. This goes as follows: (a) war is hell on earth; (b) despite that, American soldiers are entirely admirable, and the soldiers on the other side are more to be pitied than despised; and (c) the politics of the situation are complex and not worth addressing in detail. We were Soldiers, written and directed by Randall Wallace (the writer of Braveheart) applies this formula cleanly and prototypically, and as I watched it I kept thinking there was something I was missing – some homely subtext that an urban liberal couldn’t hope to understand.
It’s been said that film aspires to the condition of music, but We were Soldiers seems to aspire more to the security and comfort of an incredibly vivid slideshow at a small town church hall. Under the Sand doesn’t quite satisfy on the highest level, but it’s conceived out of a love of cinema, and its mysteries are a fair homage to those of the medium itself.