Dir: Francois Ozon. France. 2000. 90 mins.

Prod co: Fidelite Productions. Int'l Sales: Celluloid Dreams (33) 1 4970 0370. Prods: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missionier. Scr: Ozon. DoP: Jeanne Lapoirie, Antoine Heberle. Prod des: Sandrine Canaux. Ed: Laurence Bawedin. Mus: Phillipe Rombi. Main cast: Charlotte Rampling, Alexandra Stewart, Bruno Cremer, Jacques Nolot.

The unbearable emptiness that follows the loss of a loved one is sensitively conveyed in Sous Le Sable, a moody, wistful chamberwork from prolific writer-director Francois Ozon. Ozon's fourth feature in three years, it reveals the growing confidence and maturity of a filmmaker who remains best know for the eye-catching iconoclasm of his debut feature Sitcom. It also gives the suddenly ubiquitous Charlotte Rampling her most challenging role in years.

The gloomy, introspective subject matter and modest scale of the enterprise will define its commercial profile but it should make a mark in territories where Ozon's reputation is established and where Rampling's name still carries a certain cachet. The film is screening at San Sebastian following its premiere at Toronto.

Married to Jean (Cremer) for more than twenty-five years, college lecturer Marie (Rampling) revels in the comfort of their daily rituals. As they drive to their country house for a holiday, we witness their companionable silence and an ease born of long-standing affection. The next day, they head for a deserted beach where she reads and lazes in the sun whilst he sets out for a swim from which he never returns.

Some time later in Paris, Marie has resumed her life but refused to accept that Jean has drowned. She continues to think of him in the present tense, still buys him gifts and resists any well-meaning efforts to interest her in other men.

Concentrating on Marie's state of anguished denial, Ozon paints the torments of sudden bereavement without resorting to undue melodrama. Instead, he lingers over the desperate delusions and self-doubts that wrack Marie as she clings to false hope and surrenders to moments of abject melancholy. As elegant a presence as ever, Rampling's angular features and slightly icy manner are effectively used to contrast Marie's outward calm and inner turmoil.

Seemingly more at ease whilst acting in French, her quietly compelling, understated work provides the soul of the film. It is one of her most impressive performances.