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In the movies, dead husbands and dearly departed boyfriends have an irksome habit of revisiting the women who once loved them -- usually at inconvenient moments. Consider Demi Moore in Ghost. Poor thing had to put up with the dramatically challenged shade of Patrick Swayze, who droned on and on about a botched Mob hit. How about Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands' beleaguered, beautiful Brazilian widow suddenly forced to choose between her exciting (albeit expired) husband and a real-live dullard who promises her a few earthly comforts. And let's not forget the plight of Juliet Stevenson's character in the charming 1991 sleeper Truly Madly Deeply: Her musician-lover returned from the Beyond and installed himself in her London flat with half a dozen seedy, bellowing fellow ghosts representing three or four different centuries and several peculiar modes of dress. Try getting rid of that bunch.

The heroine of François Ozon's Under the Sand has a similar (but not identical) problem. While on summer vacation in southwestern France with her husband of 25 years, English-born Marie Drillon (Charlotte Rampling) looks up from her snooze on a beach blanket to discover her beloved Jean is gone. Vanished. After the customary searches, creepy police encounters, and unspoken speculations (suicide? drowning? flight?), Marie retreats back into her life as a middle-aged literature professor in Paris. True to film form, though, Jean (Bruno Cremer) just won't stay out of the frame. She imagines him drowsing in their bed and makes small talk with him at the breakfast table. He materializes in her every vision and remains stubbornly fixed in the present tense. Marie remains "married" despite the best efforts of friends (Alexandra Stewart and Pierre Vernier are two) to divert her attention and urge her onward in life.

Inevitably another man enters the picture. He's an understanding, considerate good guy named Vincent (Jacques Nolot), and in a way Marie takes to him. Certainly she's flattered by his attentions. But big, bulky Jean won't go away. We're all but certain he's not a ghost but the product of Marie's love and nagging curiosity. (Sand doesn't really dabble in the supernatural.) The baffled wife cannot bring herself to remove his wrinkled jacket from his chair or herself from his spell. "Hold me tight," she whispers to his palpable presence. Not to worry, he will.

In observant, well-made earlier features such as Water Drops on Burning Rocks and Criminal Lovers, writer-director Ozon, now 33 years old, gave us reason to believe that French cinema (at least that tiny fraction of it that crosses the Atlantic) hasn't really gone the way of the local bifteck. He confirms that promise here with a beautifully acted, carefully written meditation on one woman's grief, the enigma of imagination, the persistence of desire, and let's face it, the power of denial. For my francs, the greatest film ever made on the subject is François Truffaut's The Story of Adele H., in which the daughter of Victor Hugo is gripped by her passion for a lost lover so powerful that it survives even the conscious destruction of its object.

Ozon may not be the next Truffaut -- not yet, anyway -- but he shows a deft touch here, especially with details. Rampling, lovely in her middle years, gazes into the looking glass, finds an apparent defect, and in a gesture that speaks volumes about aging and the assumed comforts of marriage, works a dab of emollient into a cheekbone. Entranced by illusion Marie cocks an ear to the dead silence of her living room and asks: "Jean? Are you home?" We don't know whether to feel warmed or chilled, but we certainly feel the gulf of unknowing into which the heroine has slipped.

A major subtext of Under the Sand is the profound effect that love, even simple proximity, has on the soul. Wisely Ozon doesn't tell us everything about Marie (she's more complex than she first seems), and he tells us almost nothing about the film's missing person, who's not really missing at all. That's as it should be: Adrift on the changing, changeless sea of life, we're supposed to figure out some things for ourselves -- and come up with our own answers. Under the Sand gives us that chance.

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Bill Gallo

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