Berlinale 2019: The important collaboration of Francois Ozon and Charlotte Rampling, recipient of Golden Bear
Under the Sand will be screened in the Homage section at Berlinale 2019, along with another (and more popular) Ozon-Rampling collaboration, Swimming Pool.
How did Ingmar Bergman watch movies? In the theatres, like everyone else? Apparently not, according to one of the chapters in Ingmar Bergman: Interviews, by the Swedish film critic Jan Aghed. He writes that the governing board of the Swedish Film Institute, the equivalent of the French Cinémathèque, made a special decision for the legendary filmmaker’s benefit. “Every spring, he requests 150 films from the Institute’s archive. In June, all these films are delivered by truck to his house on Fårö island, where he can view them in the ultra-modern screening room that he has built. All summer long, he sees a movie at three in the afternoon, five days a week, often in the company of children and vacationing grandchildren. Each Monday, he gives them a program which lists the films that will be screened that week.”
Fascinating as all this is, what, you may wonder, it has to do with the topic at hand. I’m getting there. Besides these 150 titles, there was another list consisting of the most interesting or most talked-about films that had been shown to the public the previous season. The distributors of these films made them available to Bergman. One of the films that impressed him the most was François Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000), starring Charlotte Rampling, who will receive the Honorary Golden Bear (presented for “an exceptional artistic career”) at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Bergman thought it was superb, and watched it many times. Under the Sand will be screened in the Homage section, along with another (and more popular) Ozon-Rampling collaboration, Swimming Pool.
Ozon is an important filmmaker in Rampling’s career. (They’ve worked on two other films: Angel and Young & Beautiful.) In the sixties through the eighties, Rampling was seen in many notable films, a sampling of which will be screened at the Berlinale: Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (she played a concentration camp survivor who has an affair with a Nazi officer), Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, and Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (possibly her most high-profile role, opposite Paul Newman). But then, life became stranger than the movies. After two decades of believing that her elder sister had died of a brain hemorrhage, Rampling discovered that the cause of death was actually suicide. This sent her into depression, and it wasn’t until Ozon — despite many dissuaders — cast her in Under the Sand that her career picked up again. The film earned her a César nomination for Best Actress.
It tells the story of a lecturer in English literature named Marie (Rampling), who has been married to Jean (Bruno Cremer) for some 25 years. During a vacation at a beach in southwest France, Jean disappears. (This seems to happen quite a bit in European art-house movies set around the Mediterranean. Also see L’Avventura.) Did he drown while swimming? Did he simply walk away? As Marie waits for answers, she decides he’s still around in their apartment. She talks to him, even when -- after some time -- she begins seeing another man. Under the Sand is one of those near-plotless films that depend on the portrayal of a certain kind of psychological interiority, and Rampling does that magnificently. AO Scott, in the New York Times, likened the performance to “a perfectly executed piano étude”.
My favourite scene is something very simple. It just has Marie gaze into the mirror, examine the sagging skin under her eyes, and apply some face cream around these areas. There’s no dialogue, but we hear her say: “I’m a woman of a certain age.” In an interview with The Talks, Ozon said he realised he preferred to tell stories from a woman’s perspective after working with Rampling on Under the Sand. “I realized filming a face and projecting many things on a face, it is possible to think about so many things. Fassbinder said that what he liked about Douglas Sirk’s work was the fact he had the feeling to see, for the first time, women thinking on the screen. Usually women just have to look pretty in movies, and I like to try to show the psyche or the interior of a woman or a little girl.” He could be talking about the mirror scene.
Both actress and director appear to agree that the character of Marie is like Rampling. In the Guardian, Ozon said: “[The film] is a documentary about Charlotte Rampling. She is very close to the character in the film, and I used Charlotte as she is in life. Glamorous, with a certain magic. But beneath is something you feel, very strong, very deep. Something she doesn't show through actions or words. Feelings.” And Rampling said, in Interview: “Working with François was like an autobiographical thing. Literally, he was just filming me…” Let’s not forget Rampling’s own battle with depression, after the discovery about her sister. The film comes eerily close.
Rampling added, “I re-realised my potential as a cinema actor, what I can do with my face and how I can use my emotions and how they can come through on my face… I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve still got things to say on screen’.” When asked about her anti-plastic surgery stance (which reflects in the mirror scene described above), she said something all actresses (and actors) can learn from. “This is the face that I’ve earned. This is the face that is me now. And if I’m going to carry on in the film business, I’m just going to watch my face grow older. I’m not going to change it in any sense… The challenge now, if I want to stay in films, is just to watch your face growing older. That’s got to be damn interesting. That’s got to be quite daring, because you can start to do things.” Things like... Under the Sand.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (south).
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