Swimming Pool

Swimming Pool

France/UK, 2003. Rated R. 102 minutes.

Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Marc Fayolle, Jean-Marie Lamour, Mireille Moussé, Michel Fau, Jean-Claude Lecas
Writers: Emmanuèle Bernheim, François Ozon
Music: Philippe Rombi
Cinematographer: Yorick Le Saux
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Director: François Ozon


Grade: A- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Read the AboutFilm feature and interview with Ludivine Sagnier.

François Ozon is a cold director. 8 Women was supposed to be a campy ode to the musicals of the 1950s, but the fun was too often blocked by Ozon's remote, chilly attitude toward his women. His critically acclaimed Under the Sand was also a frigid film whose isolated protagonist, ostensibly unable to accept the disappearance of her husband, outwardly appears to be coping with reality while she engages in odd behavior that is progressively more difficult to explain. Though admirably played by Charlotte Rampling, the character as written fails utterly to connect with the audience. As a character portrait, it was irritatingly hazy. As a story, it was an irritatingly hazy character portrait.

A dispassionate directorial style, where all action is framed against a stark landscape and there exists not the slightest hint of overstatement, can be effective, but only if the material is extremely compelling. That requires not only superb actors (which 8 Women and Under the Sand did have), but also a sharp, evocative screenplay. Unlike Ozon's two previous efforts, Swimming Pool offers the latter. Ozon's directorial style has not changed, but now it works.

Focusing on another internally troubled woman played by Charlotte Rampling, Swimming Pool has a far more ambiguous and complex story structure than Under the Sand, but it is less inscrutable, suggesting various possible meanings and explanations. Swimming Pool is also, like so many movies today, in part a film about writing. Writers writing about writing—it's a trend.

The writer in this case is Englishwoman Sarah Morton (Rampling), author of a series of best-selling mystery novels that bear titles like Inspector Dorwell Wears a Kilt. Bitter and burnt out, she longs to write about something more profound than murders and investigations. Her commercially minded publisher John Bosload (Charles Dance), with whom Sarah may or may not have a romantic relationship, sends her to his vacation home in the Charlotte Ramling and Ludivine Sagnier (background)South of France to recuperate and recharge. The English are always going to the South of France or the hills of Italy to embark on journeys of self-discovery, it seems. Sarah is no different.

Sarah visibly relaxes as soon as she arrives. She settles into Bosload's spacious country home and the tiny village of Lubéron, yet maintains some distance from her surroundings. She leaves the swimming pool covered and avoids the local food, buying only junk and subsisting mostly on yogurt and tomatoes. "I don't need anyone, you know," she tells her aged father on the telephone. But Sarah does get someone. Her tranquility is shattered by the arrival of Bosload's boisterous, clothing-optional French daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier, now an Ozon regular). They are instantly at odds. Sarah likes to have total peace, quiet, and cleanliness; Julie likes to smoke, drink, and screw a different man every night. Middle aged, pasty bodies, stringy hair—it makes no difference to Julie. She assumes Sarah is "daddy's latest conquest."

One might expect an angry Sarah to flee, but she does not. At first she tries to shut Julie out, but this proves impossible. Instead Sarah finds herself drawn to Julie. She steals Julie's much more flavorful food, spies on her having sex, and eventually discovers her journal. Sarah's curiosity becomes insatiable as reality and her creative process collide. A story idea has taken hold, and Julie is the inspiration.

While mostly antagonistic, the interplay between Sarah and Julie reveals much about their needs and desires, and how each woman is damaged. Amid the squabbling, an unpredictable bond forms. About the only development that can be easily guessed is that Julie will inevitably discover that Sarah has been at her diary. She does so in a sublimely acted moment of shock in which Sagnier suddenly looks five years younger and more naked than when she has her clothes off. Another excellent scene is when Julie brings home Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour), a local waiter to whom both Julie and Sarah are attracted, and prevails upon Sarah to dance. Sarah finally does so, awkwardly hippity-hopping up and down with absolutely no rhythm, but slowly getting a feel for the beat as Franck draws closer.

As in 8 Women, Ozon displays an affection for primary colors and stark contrasts—a couple shots of a bright red raft floating on the turquoise pool, for example, which are mirrored by a couple shots of Sarah's bed, covered by a bright red bedspread against the backdrop of a rich azure wall. He sprinkles in a number of easily spotted visual symbols—the appearing and disappearing cross on Sarah's wall, the scar extending vertically from Julie's bellybutton, a small egg (to represent Sarah's story idea), and, of course, the pool itself, sometimes covered, sometimes uncovered, sometimes dirty, sometimes clean. The pool both reflects reality and provides an entrance to a different one. As Ozon remarks, "It takes a long time before Sarah Morton gets into the swimming pool. She can do it only when Julie becomes her inspiration, and only when the pool is finally clean." As Julie's influence forces Sarah to face her own desires, we see Sarah in poses and situations that are exact copies of previous scenes involving Julie. Everything is carefully framed; there is not a single casual shot in the film.

Bosload observes to Sarah that writing about feelings is not her strong suit. That may have been true of Ozon in past films as well, but Swimming Pool is surprisingly deep. Ozon does not even allow us to see how deep until the final scene is over, giving us that special fun that only the very best movies provide—the pleasure of diving in again and again.

Review © June 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2003 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

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