Retrospectively seen by film critics and scholars as one of the first films of the French cinéma du corps (also known as the French New Extremity), François Ozon’s suspense thriller See the Sea (Regarde la Mer, 1997) is a bit tamer than later extreme cinema would become. Nevertheless, it has its transgressive physical moments (both sexual and violent).
What is most interesting about the film is the individual psychologies of both major characters, Sasha (Sasha Hails) and Tatiana (Marina de Van), as they interact in the context of an increasingly strange relationship. The strangeness comes from various boundary-crossing moments that seem innocuous at first but become more blatant as the narrative progresses. Ultimately, these moments suffuse the film with an overall sense of impending horror that foreshadows a gruesome finale.
Sasha is a young, French-speaking, British woman who lives with her husband (Paul Raoux) and their infant daughter Sioffra (Samantha) in a cottage on Île d’Yeu, an island just off the coast of western France. Her husband is away on business in Paris when Tatiana, a vagabond and former au pair, knocks on her door. Tatiana tells Sasha that she would like to set up camp in Sasha’s large yard because the local campsites are full. Nonplussed at first, Sasha relents in the face of Tatiana’s forceful insistence and allows the stranger to pitch her tent not far from the house. The two women soon develop an odd rapport, but a vague sense of foreboding hangs in the air.
In my reading, issues of class, gender, and sexuality drive the conflict that emerges between the two women. Ozon presents the working-class, single, and homeless Tatiana as a creature of murderous, psychotic rage hidden behind a tenuous and awkward veneer of social conventions. Although Sasha is married and has a child, she herself is childlike in the naïveté with which she approaches Tatiana. Yet she is also curious about the darker side of life. When Tatiana’s inner monster peeks out from behind its curtain, Sasha is more intrigued than alarmed.
Thus, the film is a critique of bourgeois decadence rather than working-class atavism. From the start of their relationship, Sasha answers Tatiana’s increasingly inappropriate and intrusive questions and tolerates her occasionally unusual behavior (such as licking her plate after eating dinner), taking it all in stride rather than seeing it as a series of cues to question Tatiana’s character. Instead, Sasha herself begins to cross boundaries. Intruding into Tatiana’s tent, she discovers a notebook filled with psychotic scribblings and homicidal sketches. Instead of being alarmed, she paradoxically allows Tatiana wider access to her life and home, including asking her to babysit her daughter during a trip to town for a respite from motherhood.
A crucial sequence demonstrates Sasha’s crossing into Tatiana’s world. Sasha takes her child to the beach and invites Tatiana to accompany them. Before becoming “bored” and deciding to go off to wander the countryside, Tatiana tells Sasha that she saw “two men fucking” in the forest that borders the beach. After Tatiana takes her leave, Sasha goes into the forest, absent-mindedly abandoning her infant child on the beach while she has an anonymous sexual encounter. This action implies that Sasha unconsciously harbors hostility to and resentment of her daughter and, by extension, her life as a young wife and mother. The forest, coded here as a world of untrammeled desire, stands for her as an opportunity to regress from the world of the Lacanian Symbolic, in which bourgeois patriarchy defines what it means to be a woman, into the Imaginary, “an almost utopic . . . realm of the senses” in which there is no “clear sense of boundaries” to her identity (Benshoff, Film and Television Analysis 129 – 30).
However, Sasha does not recognize the difference between the causes of Tatiana’s regression and that of her own. Tatiana is not merely the free-spirited rebel that Sasha believes she is. The film offers many clues to Tatiana’s true nature; the audience observes most of these from Sasha’s point-of-view. Sasha appears to dismiss these insights, denying their implications about Tatiana’s increasingly psychotic mental state.
There is a sequence in which Sasha does not observe Tatiana’s behavior. After accepting Sasha’s offer to use her cottage’s bathroom, Tatiana uses the toilet, then contaminates Sasha’s toothbrush with her feces. Later, Sasha is annoyed to find that Tatiana has not flushed the toilet, then brushes her teeth in blissful ignorance. This sudden introduction of the abject to the diegetic world demonstrates Tatiana’s malevolence, which is also signified for the audience by her dark, brooding expression as she soaks in the tub, glowering Medusa-like while smoking a cigarette, after using the toilet. Moreover, it also links Tatiana and Sasha, both literally and symbolically, through the abject.
In combination with the scene in which Sasha discovers and reads Tatiana’s notebook, this sequence fuels a sense of suspense that builds inexorably for the audience over the film’s short runtime of fifty-two minutes. It also foreshadows a final, catastrophic return of the abject – in its classic Freudian embodiment, the corpse – through the Tatiana-to-Sasha pathway that this sequence establishes. Possessed of privileged information about Tatiana, the increasingly anxious viewer can “see it coming”, yet Sasha remains unguarded in blissful denial to the end.
The bathroom sequence, the preceding forest sequence, and the horrific climactic sequence are harbingers of the “low art”, transgressive content that more aggressively confronts the audience in later French New Extremity films. The film’s formal characteristics (such as its use of mise en scène, cinematography, and lighting) presage a “high art”, formalistic aesthetic that marks many later works of the cinéma du corps. At the beginning of the film, lush daytime exterior shots chronicle Sasha’s apparently idyllic, bourgeois life with her infant daughter in and around her seaside cottage. After Tatiana’s arrival, shot-reverse shot pairings and two-shots present contrasting gazes and facial expressions that belie a latent, yet fundamental conflict between the two women.
This conflict is based primarily on class, as Tatiana’s resentment of Sasha’s bourgeois privilege becomes increasingly clear over the course of the narrative. Nevertheless, there are also undertones of hostility and jealousy on the part of Tatiana towards Sasha’s participation in patriarchal heteronormativity and of sexual attraction between the two women. When Tatiana’s erotic and murderous impulses emerge, fused together, in the final sequence, cold, hard, blue lighting and off-center placement in a canted frame code the emergence of this inner monster.