A scary little movie, François Ozon’s See the Sea brings to mind such classics of psychological horror as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique and Philip Noyce’s Dead Calm. It’s a voluptuous, heat-of-summer tale that makes the blood run cold.
Sasha (Sasha Hails) and her 10-month-old daughter are on vacation on a sunbaked, underpopulated island off the coast of France. With nothing to do but lie on the beach and tend to the baby, Sasha is a bit bored, a bit irritated, and helplessly horny. Her husband is out of reach by phone, presumably hard at work.
One evening, a backpacker (Marina de Van) knocks on the door and asks permission to set up her tent in Sasha’s yard. There’s something menacing in the backpacker’s body language, something distorted in her expression. She looks like a thickened version of Sasha herself. “It’s my husband’s property,” Sasha says, by way of an excuse for her reluctance to be hospitable. Disavowing her immediate reaction of fear and antipathy, Sasha agrees to let the backpacker camp on the far end of the lawn. But within a day, she gives the backpacker the run of the house, even leaving the baby in her care while she bicycles down to the ferry landing to do some shopping.
Is this masochism or expedience? Is Sasha the kind of guilty middle-class liberal whose fear of offending someone less privileged than herself overcomes even her protective maternal instinct? Or is her maternal instinct already corrupted by feelings of resentment toward the child who curtails her freedom? It’s all of this, and more. Ozon has a talent for conveying an enormous amount of psychological complexity and ambivalence with a few lines of dialogue, the movement of an eye, the almost invisible tensing of a muscle. What’s more, he leaves us the time and space to project our own experience, fear, and desire onto the situation.
From the moment that we see the backpacker on a cliff above the beach looking down at the mother and child sprawled sleepy and vulnerable in the midday sun, we know a game of cat and mouse has begun. The backpacker intuits a certain passivity in Sasha that makes her perfect prey. She begins by testing her with tiny acts of aggression. She stares too long, she stands just an inch too close, she waits just a second or two before responding to a simple request like “Would you hand me a towel?,” she doesn’t flush the toilet. Sasha doesn’t know whether to interpret this behavior as adolescent bad manners or as something more predatory. The more confused she becomes, the less able she is to confront the situation.
Ozon constructs the narrative so that we always know more than Sasha does. Perhaps if she had seen, as we did, the backpacker dip her host’s toothbrush in the shitty water of the toilet she deliberately leaves unflushed, Sasha would pick up the baby and run for the first ferry off the island. What does it matter if her husband thinks she’s a fool for being frightened, or if the house is left open to robbers and vandals? Unlike most horror films, in which the heroine’s refusal to remove herself from the vicinity of the maniac who’s pursuing her seems like plain stupidity or bad plotting, Ozon makes us aware of the psychological and sociological conditioning that governs action or inaction.
Framed and edited with surgical precision, See the Sea announces itself as a horror film before a single character appears on screen. The first time I saw the film, I walked in blind. But from the first three shots–a close-up of surf lapping on coarse, reddish sand, a medium shot of a field of high grass, a long shot of a house within which a baby is crying–I understood that something dreadful was going to happen. Violence is implicit in the cutting and suturing of time and space that is basic to all filmmaking. But Ozon’s abrupt, disjunctive editing and deliberately cropped compositions ratchet up the violence, making the film’s style the correlative of the backpacker’s psychotic disassociation and murderous impulses.
All the more effective for its economy, See the Sea is exactly the length it needs to be. But its less-than-feature-length 52 minutes is a distributor’s nightmare. Zeitgeist Films is releasing it on a double bill with Ozon’s 15-minute short, A Summer Dress. Slight but chic, it puts a comic spin on the disruptive, ambiguous sexuality that proves so deadly in See the Sea.
Ambivalence about the comforts, constrictions, and compromises of bourgeois life is also the subject of Robert Bierman’s A Merry War, an adaptation of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a satire about class and money in England between the two world wars. Richard E. Grant plays a successful advertising copywriter who quits his job to become a poet, descending from genteel poverty to bawdy, flea-infested poverty in the process. Helena Bonham Carter plays the coworker who loves him and tries to turn him into a proper husband and father. A Merry War is decently acted (Grant is amusingly curdled, Bonham Carter is sensible and efficient even when she’s lying in a damp field in her underwear), but as filmmaking, it’s too staid to make much of an impression.