See The Sea (1997): The terrifying Neo-Hitchcock you don’t know about

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Strangers. They’re a timeless, ceaselessly engaging cinematic device that has provoked the imaginations of creators in terms of what they can introduce to the lives of protagonistic characters. There is the benevolently mysterious strain that includes the likes of John Coffey in The Green Mile, the titular character in Shane, the Preacher in Pale Rider and Ted Brautigan in Hearts In Atlantis. More often than not, however, they function as harbingers of doom. Strangers On A Train, Joseph Losey’s The Servant, 1990 popcorn thriller Bad Influence and the various adaptations of Emlyn Williams’ Night Must Fall (with particular emphasis on the superior 1937 version) all intriguingly play with the concept of the hero/heroine’s life being encroached upon by a walking cypher, someone simultaneously charismatic and extraordinarily dangerous. They serve to make you think twice should you ever sit around mournfully waiting for ‘someone unique’ to come crashing into your existence.

Francois Ozon, the audacious Gallic filmmaker responsible for provocative gems such as In The House and 8 Women, created something of a cult hit earlier on in his career with this stunning psychodrama that manages to say many things in a mere 52 minutes. With a stripped-down but nevertheless stunning visual aesthetic, teasing and disarming characterisation that refuses to spoon-feed its audience and an ultimately bleak vision about our capacity as social animals, See The Sea imbues the viewer with an enduring disturbance in the absence of all the easy tropes.

Sasha (Sasha Hails) is a young, middle-class Englishwoman living on the French island of Ile d’Yeu with her French husband and their infant daughter. Sasha’s husband, as he often is, is currently absent due to a business trip, leaving her to potter around aimlessly searching for activity to fill her days and contend with the stress of constantly sating their bundle of joy. Reading, sunbathing and looking wistfully at the landscape can only occur so much before it all becomes laborious.

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Lounging around at home one afternoon, Sasha receives a knock on the door and is greeted by Tatiana (Marina de Van), an ambiguously homeless drifter making her way around the nation’s rural hot spots. I say ‘greeted’ in the loosest possible sense of the term, as to say that Tatiana is the antithesis of a social butterfly is a phenomenal understatement. Initially apprehensive yet undeniably lonely, Sasha acquiesces to the stranger’s request to pitch her tent on her property, the latter promising to pack up and move on in a day or two. Tatiana’s latently hostile demeanour generates some concern, but Sasha is nevertheless inquisitive, feeling that finally having another adult present to converse with (especially one as seemingly abnormal as Tatiana) will sufficiently blow away the cobwebs and stalemate her misery a little.

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A poker-faced, unfriendly sort, Tatiana is uncommunicative save for questions that probe inappropriately into Sasha’s personal life and making bizarre, unsettling sexual remarks. Courtesy of a fantastic minimalist performance by de Van that epitomises great nonverbal acting, we get the unmistakable sense that Tatiana is far from a mere edgelord and that something genuinely sinister is bubbling away beneath the surface of this peculiar young woman. Quick to state that she is welcome to come inside for dinner each night and use the bathroom for necessities, Sasha walks a tightrope between regret and longing as Tatiana’s anarchic lifestyle stirs some residual lust for freedom inside her, even as the drifter’s behaviour becomes more disconcerting (one sequence that I won’t spoil here, for you shall know when you see it, is truly mean-spirited and repulsive). The ominous social unease and vague sexual tension that generates between the two women subtly ramps in intensity before treating us to a shocking denouement.

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With a sparse synopsis and a running time that doesn’t even clock in at one hour, See The Sea is a wondrous achievement on the part of Ozon. Sasha appears to dote on her baby daughter, but she is nevertheless a pathologically selfish individual in her own right. She berates the girl for doing typical infantile things like crying and being generally demanding, leaves her unattended in the bath, and most prominently wanders off and leaves the tyke alone on a beach before displaying that she isn’t the most faithful spouse either. She has some unspoken regret for the way life has turned out for her, and Tatiana’s lack of attachments and responsibilities ignites some sort of post-youth crisis (she isn’t old enough to have a middle-aged one yet).

With an unfaltering predatory stare, Tatiana accurately sizes up Sasha the moment she claps eyes on her, and takes a sadistic delight in simultaneously arousing and offending the naive and isolated young mother. There is the perturbing notion that she has travelled the landscape manipulating and messing around with many other hapless bourgeois loners before she landed on this particular doorstep, and the film’s consummately handled minor-key exposition renders her that most pure and terrifying variety of antagonist: someone who may want to do you harm for the sake of the harm.

It is short, not-very-sweet, wonderfully acted and shot, and it stayed with me for a considerable while after viewing it. Ozon proved his chops as an imaginatively confrontational writer-director here, subtly infusing the piece with an LGBT subtext that is neither patronising nor on-the-nose, an eye for suspense that evokes titans such as the great Alfred and many later artists like Adrian Lyne, and a cruel reminder of the potential outcomes of being too nice to people you don’t know from a hole in the ground. Track this one down and give it a whirl.

 

 

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