There are few situations to which the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are not pressingly germane:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.
Often spoken of as a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is more rewardingly read as a portrait of a fragile mind under intense pressure. Scarred by decades of servitude to a sick and deranged mother, Eleanor Vance is a woman who carries her reality with her like a snail carries its shell. While the novel’s melody is dominated by Hugh Crain’s house and the miseries that befell his family, the harmony is all about the way that Eleanor picks things up and uses them to fashion a world more comforting and endurable than absolute reality. Everyone needs a little cup of stars.
One of the great joys of Jackson’s novel is the way that she manages to blur the boundaries of the real, the supernatural and the outright hallucinatory without ever bothering to draw attention to the lack of subjective difference between these different categories. For Jackson, this uncertainty is so universal that it simply does not merit commentary… it’s all one big sordid mess. Many films and books have been drawn to this ambiguity but while great works such Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl add their own ingredients to the ambiguous brew, most works that use these tropes yearn for clear dividing lines between the metaphorical and the concrete, the material and the fantastical, the sane and the insane, the true and the false. This is why you are more likely to encounter the carefully nested realities of films like Inception and Jacob’s Ladder than you are the happy ambiguities of a film like Total Recall or The Descent. Though definitely a film with a clear dividing line between reality and fantasy, Francois Ozon’s Sous le Sableis a film that is intensely relaxed about the ambiguities of madness.
Marie (Charlotte Rampling) and Jean (Bruno Cremer) are a wealthy middle-aged couple travelling to their summer home in the south west of France. Once arrived, Marie sends Jean out to pick up some firewood and he momentarily pauses and leans against a tree. Is what we are seeing a moment of weariness after a long drive or a sign of psychological burdens grown too heavy to bear? The following day, Jean disappears whilst swimming. Though Marie is initially quite upset and eager to report her husband’s disappearance to the police, the displaced anger of concern is soon replaced by the eerie calm of denial. By the time Marie makes it back to Paris, she is talking about her life with Jean in the present tense as though nothing has changed. Her denial so absolute that she even imagines Jean’s presence in the flat when she gets home.
Most films of this ilk treat psychological phantoms as an explicit challenge and set about reasserting concrete reality by either forcing the character to either confront the source of their madness or accept the fact that the phantom is a product of some heretofore hidden reality. Ozon falls into neither of these traps and seems quite content following the character of Marie as she crawls across a web of denial that has her trying to reconcile the need to continue pretending that Jean is not dead with the need to get on with her life by moving to a less expensive apartment or finding happiness with another man. The film’s refusal to dictate terms to its own character means that we see Marie’s ties to the real world expand and contract depending upon her mood or the events that have just taken place. On a good day, Marie will recognise that she needs to move on and will consent to spend time with a man who has fallen in love with her. On a bad day, Marie refuses to call the morgue when they report that they have found her husband’s body. The peculiarity of this film is that Ozon does not feel obliged to judge Marie’s mental state by linking departures from reality to particular events. Marie is not lured away from sanity by unhappiness, she happens to live in her own little reality and the nature of that reality changes day by day and minute by minute. Ozon does not feel the need to account for Marie’s departures from reality because, much like The Haunting of Hill House, this is not a film about truth but about character and the fact that we all struggle under conditions of absolute reality.
Rather that serving as an arbiter of reality, Ozon assumes a position reminiscent of that of Marie’s lover Vincent. Played by the great director Jacques Nolot, Vincent is head over heels in love with Marie and desperate for her to be happy. Completely aware that Jean has disappeared and that Marie is in deep denial, Vincent slowly wins Marie over thanks to his detached yet attentive position relative to his delusion. Until the very end of the film, he does not seek to ‘cure’ or ‘question’ Marie over her beliefs, he is simply happy to spend time with her and to help wherever he can because he can see the intelligence and humanity that is stirred through Marie’s delusions. Vincent knows that Marie is struggling but this struggle in no way makes her a lesser person, this respect is mirrored in the way that Ozon keeps Marie’s mental illness at arm’s distance.
Much of the film’s emotional impact comes from the time and space that Ozon affords his leading lady. Having started her cinematic career in 1965 at the tender age of 17, Charlotte Rampling spent the 1990s settling into a state of semi-retirement populated by a host of TV dowagers who paid the bills without overly taxing the mind. Lured back to film by Ozon and trusted to hold an audience’s attention, Rampling expands to fill every inch of the screen… a storm of emotional complexity that thunders its grief and denial whilst peppering the landscape with lightning flashes of anger and desire. To behold Rampling’s performance is to be reminded of a similar act of regeneration that Kristen Scott Thomas underwent in the aftermath of Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long. In both cases, the actresses clearly had the talent to hold audiences and inhabit complex characters, it’s just that they had to leave Britain in order to find the types of roles that would allow them to do so. Much is made of the way that French film seems to nurture the careers of middle-aged women but in truth, the British and American film industries did exactly the same thing until comparatively recently. To talk about actresses such as Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Joan Crawford is to talk about actresses who were allowed to mature and rediscover themselves at different points in their own lives.
Eventually, Marie realises that Jean was on anti-depressants and goes to talk to Jean’s mother about the possibility of his having committed suicide. In what must count as one of the most chilling scenes in the history of French film, Marie finds her denial reflected in the face of Jean’s mother, a woman who delivers one insulting platitude after another with a steely asymmetrical grin. Just as Marie has sought comfort in the delusion that Jean is still alive and living with her in her home, Jean’s mother has sought comfort in the idea that her son might have left his childless wife and started a new life somewhere new. Horrified by this spectre of denial, Marie decides to confront her fears but while she pushes the medical examiner for all the gruesome details and even forces herself to look at Jean’s rotting and mutilated corpse, she still cannot let go. Not yet. Not ever. And who are we to judge?