At the beginning of her summer vacation, Marie (Charlotte Rampling) is happily lying on the beach with her husband Jean (Bruno Cremer). When she awakes, he has suddenly disappeared into thin air. It is seemingly apparent to everyone, save an unbelieving Marie, that Jean has drowned, leaving her a widow. Despite the concern of her best friend Amanda (Alexandra Stewart), and hopeful new suitor Vincent (Jacques Nolot), a deep-in-denial Marie willfully keeps Jean alive in her mind, with daily conversations and a continuance of their old, usual routine. Eventually, the truth is revealed to her, which in some ways is even more horrific than his actual death.

Fran‡ois Ozon, the fascinating young French director, returns to a favorite setting--the beach--for his latest film, Under the Sand. The seaside provided a blithe, super-sexy backdrop for his terrific short, A Summer Dress (one of the best gay films ever made), as well as a more sinister ambiance for his ultra-creepy See the Sea. Here, la plage is presented at its most mysterious and unanswerable, affording the weird kind of displacement that can suddenly turn a blissful holiday into an inescapable nightmare.

Ozon's technique grows more masterly with each film, but, unfortunately, not enough happens in this one. It is his admirable ambition to provide a full-scale portrait of a woman of a certain age and, in Rampling, he certainly has the right, beautifully matured subject. She's both magnificently leonine and ravaged, fully displaying an admirably lithe body that could still inspire fantasies redolent of her Georgy Girl/Night Porter heyday. She's learned to act over the years, as well, as evinced in this and the recent Signs and Wonders. More than just a mesmerizing physical presence--which the French have long made something of an Adjani-ish cult of--she's now, also, expressively sensual and humorous, like a leaner (in every sense) Jeanne Moreau. But the script is too thin and, after a while, Marie's mournfully distressed mien and half-dead posture, punctuated by occasional outbursts of erratic emotion, become monotonous. There are some wickedly observant moments, as when she suddenly dissolves into laughter, in bed for the first time--finally--with the doggedly-in-pursuit Vincent. "You're so light!" she says (as opposed to the more accustomed, bulky heft of the food-and-wine-loving Jean). Over lunch, Marie quotes the suicide note of Virginia Woolf to Vincent for an effective, very Ozon-like chill. However, such incidents of discernible life are rare, and you desperately begin to want Vincent, Amanda, anyone to be just a little less tactfully understanding and scream some sense at the woman. When Jean's embittered, little old mother (veteran French actress Andree Tainsy) eventually clues her in to what may actually be happening, you're somehow not too surprised, given Marie's basically bland passivity, for all her obvious intelligence and looks.

Despite the efforts of three women, besides Ozon, on the screenplay, it's an airlessly insular film, with too much concentration on minute details. (There's a lot of chopping in the kitchen and fingering of wine-glass rims.) More could have been made, say, of Marie's career as a college lit professor--with its attendant performance pressures, as well as those provided by a nubile student body. There's a cold classicism pervading the movie which, while undeniably elegant and oh-so Gallic, is an ultimately unsatisfying, pallid substitute for the delicious anarchy, creative raunch and disturbing humor Ozon's other works have led us to expect and relish.

--David Noh