Jean (played by Charlotte Rampling and Bruno Cremer), are settling into their seaside vacation home. Cocooned in the companionable silence of the long-married, they fold slipcovers, gather firewood, boil pasta and prepare for bed. Even as we‘re being soothed with the languorous pleasures of domestic habit, though, the director is cranking up an insidious undertow of unease. Amid the casual ebb and flow of affection, Jean, a big man with the slow, heavy grace of an unapologetic bon vivant, registers a vague disquiet of which his contented wife is oblivious — until he quietly vanishes the next morning at the beach.
If you’ve seen any of this young director‘s willfully assaultive work (Sitcom, Les Amants Criminels or Water Drops on Burning Rocks), you’ll be steeling yourself right about now for something short, sharp and ugly to shatter the uncertain idyll: an ax murder, a jeering other woman — anything but the refined anatomy of grief that follows. For it quickly becomes apparent that this is not Jean‘s film, but Marie’s, and between the shock provoked by Jean‘s disappearing act and the elegant Paris dinner party at which we next see her, an act of faith — or of madness, depending on how you read the life of a mind under siege — has taken place. Like the more openly stricken Juliet Stevenson character in Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply, a warmer, more antic but ultimately less challenging movie than Ozon‘s, Marie conjures her lost partner back into their home, where, to the consternation of friends who want her to start over, she carries on as if nothing has happened. Where Stevenson was staggering through the predictable stages of a tangible grief — she knew her lover was dead — Marie is working overtime to avoid the terrifying inconclusiveness not only of whether Jean is alive or dead, but of having to comb through the marital bliss she’s taken for granted for 25 years.
Middle age has softened Rampling‘s flinty eyes and the thin dominatrix curl of that lower lip, always a tantalizingly forbidding reversal of the standard full female mouth. Shot without filters, the actress retains her snooty, patrician beauty, but she plays Marie with a low-key, serene smile — part brave, part pathetic, with a touch of the dits in its determination to repel all efforts to impose reality on her — that projects a woman so deep in denial, she continues to spend as though she had two incomes, and, when she takes a new lover, treats the relationship as an extramarital affair. Rampling’s portrait is so delicately calibrated and finally so sympathetic, one forgives her on the spot for The Night Porter, one of the most genuinely stupid films ever made, let alone about the Holocaust.
Not that Rampling has lost her capacity to leap for the jugular, but she inflects Marie‘s curt dismissal (“You don’t measure up”) of her confused lover, Vincent (Jacques Nolot), with an ambiguity that both serves and tempers the director‘s mischievous impulse to sow confusion among his audience. Extremity has always been Ozon’s game, but for once he‘s not approaching his material with a sledgehammer. He’s still a tease, dropping us, and the hapless Marie, the clues that may or may not explain Jean‘s disappearance. Even when a body turns up, that is far from the end of it for Marie, who must still grope her way to understanding. Perhaps this gifted filmmaker, whose technical smarts have been surpassed only by his abiding desire to shock and disgust the nongay bourgeoisie, wants to surprise them again, this time with a film of their own. Or perhaps, with this powerfully enigmatic study of the fundamental opacity of human relations, Francois Ozon is at last growing up.