REGARDE LA MER [See the Sea]
Dir: Francois Ozon
What’s it all about?
An English woman (Sasha Hails), staying alone with her young baby in the south of France, allows a young woman (Marina De Van) to pitch camp in her garden for a few days. The two women become friendly, but after a few days events take a dark turn.
Why haven’t you seen it?
Short films often don’t get the attention they are due. See the Sea is more problematic than most, first because it is an hour long, meaning that it doesn’t easily fit into either ‘short’ or ‘feature’ categories, secondly because it is in French, and from a director who, even here, is determinedly setting out his own vision rather than playing to the mainstream, and thirdly because its haunting ending may alienate many viewers. There’s also the simple issue of availablility; shorts don’t really get distributed very often, they are things you have to hunt down, occasionally on DVD but more often through festivals.
Why should you see it?
For starters because its director, Francois Ozon, is quite possibly the world’s best and most consistent working filmmaker. He’s incredibly prolific; producing 12 features (to date) in a 13 year career, I’ve seen and can unreservedly reommend all but two of his films (Ricky, a fantasy comedy about a couple who have baby that can fly remains unreleased in the UK, while Potiche will be out this year). See the Sea was made just before Ozon embarked on his first feature, Sitcom, and already it sees this great auteur exploring many of his filmic obsessions and working with a confidence that belies his youth.
Ozon is rightly renowned as a director of actresses, and here two of his early muses, English actress Hails, who appeared in his short A Rose Between Us and Marina DeVan, who would go on to appear in Sitcom, share the screen in what is, essentially a two hander. Even this early in his career Ozon shows himself to be capable of drawing extraordinarily natural performances from his actresses, even when some of their actions are unnatural. DeVan particularly impresses, giving an increasingly unnerving performance as the stranger who insinuates her way ever further into Hails’ life.
See the Sea is a peculiarly French type of thriller, the kind that doesn’t give much clue that that is the genre it falls in to until the midpoint of the film, by which time Ozon has built up a couple of complex characters for us to invest in, and only then does it begin to turn the screws, the atmosphere growing ever more tense, largely through small acts by DeVan’s character, few of which seem to suggest any grand plan until towards the end of the film. There are moments where it seems likely that DeVan’s character is devloping a Single White Female like obsession with Hails, but other moments undermine that, such as one in which she washes Hails’ toothbrush in dirty toilet water. Perhaps it’s because most films are so predictable these days, but it’s the not knowing that really gets under your skin, because it means that absolutely anything is possible, likely even.
Ozon has always used sex brilliantly in his films, and here the frisson between Hails and DeVan adds another dimension to the film, and a sexual sequence, in which Hails, walking in the woods, stumbles on a male stranger who seduces her, is one of the most striking moments, both in terms of the film’s story and its visuals. There is also quite an emphasis on nudity, both as sexual and as maternal, we see a lot of Hails, baby close to her naked body, which takes on a great significance when you finally see where the film is going.
See the Sea is not an expensive looking film, but unlike many directors, whose early films sometimes feel like primitive renderings of their later work, Ozon seems to have arrived fully formed. The obsessions are all here; the lingering on bodies, the depiction of characters at the beach, the explicit sex, the implication of a same-sex attraction, the stylised use of lighting, all captured in Ozon’s typically beautifully lush compositions. There is, however, an echo of See the Sea in Ozon’s most recent UK release, the magnificent Le Refuge, which hinges on a pregnant woman, and has many shots that are somewhat familliar from this film.
You have to bear with See the Sea, though it is just 58 minutes long it takes its time, but when it gets where it is going the payoff (which I’ve tried even harder than usual to not even hint at) is so shocking and so satisfying you’ll be chomping at the bit to see more from this extraordinary filmmaker.
How can you see it?
There are several compilations of Ozon’s short films available. The most comprehensive is the BFI’s UK release, titled Regarde la Mer and Other Short Films, which collects seven films from 1994’s Action Verite [Truth or Dare] to the slightly disappointing 2006 TV film Un Lever de Rideau [A Curtain Raiser]. The Region 1 collection A Curtain Raiser and Other Shorts also includes seven films, two of which; Un Rose Entre Nous [A Rose Between Us] and Victor are exclusives. The BFI is highly recommended, but a big fan will want both.