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After 36 years as a decorative screen presence, Charlotte Rampling emerges as a world-class actress in Under the Sand, an ambiguous French drama directed and co-written by François Ozon. At 20, the English-born performer attracted international attention as Lynn Redgrave’s alluring, bitchy roommate in Georgy Girl (1966), and she has since appeared in more than four dozen movies. But even in her most famous roles—co-starring with Dirk Bogarde in the Nazi-porn melodramas The Damned (1969) and The Night Porter (1974), and portraying Woody Allen’s neurotic girlfriend in Stardust Memories (1980)—Rampling never fully committed herself to the characters she played. The camera loved her gimlet eyes and sculpted, fine-boned features, but it failed to expose what, if anything, lay beneath her striking façade.

But misfortunes that Rampling has experienced during the past decade—the breakup of her marriage to composer Jean-Michel Jarre and a prolonged depression that required extensive treatment—appear to have unleashed her emotions. Her performance in Under the Sand is so compelling that one can’t imagine the film succeeding with any other actress cast in her demanding role.

Rampling plays Marie, a literature professor married for 25 years to Jean (Bruno Cremer), an older intellectual. The movie begins as they travel to their cozy country home for a relaxed summer vacation. Nothing seems amiss as they set the house in order and dine on pasta and wine. The next morning, they go to the beach. Jean wants to swim, but Marie prefers to nap on the sand. When she awakens, Jean has disappeared. Lifeguards and police respond to her frightened appeals, but no trace of her husband can be found.

The remainder of Under the Sand deals with Marie’s refusal to accept what increasingly appears to be her husband’s death. Returning to Paris, she resumes her customary routine: teaching classes, exercising at the gym, and dining with her friend Amanda (Alexandra Stewart), who gently attempts to make Marie acknowledge Jean’s absence. But Marie persists in believing that he’s still with her at the breakfast table and in bed; she even purchases shirts and ties for him. Warnings from her attorneys about her dwindling finances (without petitioning for power of attorney, she’s denied access to Jean’s bank account) and an affair with Vincent (Jacques Nolot), a smitten publisher, fail to make her confront her loss. (While making love with Vincent, she imagines that Jean is watching her.) When police finally locate a decomposed corpse that, on the basis of dental records and beach attire, seems to be Jean’s, Marie’s stubborn denial is pushed to the breaking point.

Trim and glamorous at 55, Rampling appears in almost every shot, often in silent, extreme close-ups. Photographed without makeup, she commits herself so deeply to Marie’s repressed grief that we’re convinced we can see what she’s thinking—the ultimate demonstration of masterful screen acting. Despite the brevity of his role, Cremer makes a forceful impression. The heavyset actor has two unstressed but troubling moments—the fascinated look on his face when he uncovers an anthill while foraging for firewood and the melancholy cast to his eyes just before he takes his fateful swim—that give rise to the possibilities that his disappearance might be either the result of boredom with his marriage or the suicidal consequence of depression. Stewart, the still-lovely Canadian-born icon of French New Wave cinema (she starred in films by François Truffaut and her former lover, Louis Malle), is appealingly sympathetic as Marie’s tactful, concerned confidante, and Nolot is convincingly bewitched and bewildered by Marie’s battiness.

Ozon, regarded as one of France’s most subversive young directors, restrains his impulse to shock in Under the Sand. (See the Sea, Ozon’s masterful 1997 featurette about the relationship of two women—a young mother on vacation with her baby and a neurotic backpacker who pitches a tent on the lawn of her rental cottage—ends with one of the most horrifying revelations ever filmed.) Aware of Ozon’s reputation, I anticipated that the movie’s measured pacing, smooth editing, and stately classical-music score were setups for another harrowing, out-of-left-field denouement. Instead, Under the Sand ends enigmatically. Some viewers might feel cheated by this lack of resolution, but I doubt that anyone who experiences Rampling’s nakedly expressive performance will feel inclined to request a ticket refund.

Ending a string of maladroit career moves since his breakthrough role in Swingers, Vince Vaughn transforms Made, a scattershot gangster farce, into a personal triumph. The tall, handsome actor’s gift for goofiness serves him well as he plays Ricky, an obtuse, would-be goodfella with a boomerang mouth. Reunited with his Swingers co-star Jon Favreau, who wrote and directed Made and plays Ricky’s exasperated pal Bobby, Vaughn makes this otherwise negligible film worth watching.

Having failed as boxers and construction workers, Ricky and Bobby accept an assignment from L.A. mobster Max (Peter Falk) to travel to New York and carry out an unspecified mission. Inflated by the promise of first-class airfare, Soho hotel rooms, and $1,500 per diems, the bumbling pair arrive in Manhattan to the horror of Max’s gangland associate, Ruiz (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs). Favreau’s piecemeal plot serves as a loose framework for a series of riffs in which Ricky’s asinine babbling places both men in constant jeopardy.

Apart from Vaughn’s comedic tour de force and a few lively supporting performances—notably Jennifer Bransford’s scene as a no-nonsense flight attendant—Made is a mess. Favreau’s hangdog turn offers only a slight improvement over his one-note role in last year’s Love & Sex, and his direction barely passes muster. (I’ve seen summer-vacation videos that were more competently photographed and edited.) A subplot involving Bobby’s relationship with stripper Jess (Famke Janssen) and her young daughter, Chloe (Makenzie Vega, an endearingly unaffected moppet), seems like an afterthought designed to end the movie on an unearned sentimental note. But Vaughn’s deliciously dumb, nonstop prattle elevates this otherwise shambling film to the level of a guilty pleasure. CP