Swimming Pool (2003)
This post includes two reviews here: My own and a guest review by Michael Leary.
The supremely talented French actress Charlotte Rampling and director François Ozon clearly enjoy working together. Rampling relishes psychologically complex roles. Ozon respects his leading ladies enough to give them challenges.
In Ozon’s Under the Sand (2001), Rampling played a French woman who chose to live in denial of a tragedy — namely, that the sea had swallowed her husband. She developed a fantasy life that their marital bliss continued, even as her friends began to see cracks in her sanity. But instead of regarding her as a psychopath, we were drawn into sympathy for her. After all, she seemed happy so long as her imagination kept true love alive.
Now, Swimming Pool turns things around. A different sort of loss, a different sort of fiction, a different body of water.
Rampling plays Sarah Morton, a British mystery writer, who learns that there is no better cure for writer’s bock than a good hard rejection. When her handsome publisher (Charles Dance) offers her a retreat a la Enchanted April at his idyllic Italian getaway house, she accepts. But when she flirtatiously suggests that he join her there, he either ignores the hint or misses it entirely. Sarah departs with wounded pride.
Despite the idyllic conditions of her vacation, Sarah’s humiliation sours into ugly resentment. Like any good writer, she gets right down to work, exploiting her experience for literary inspiration.
But things go from bad to worse when the publisher’s obnoxious daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) appears out-of-the-blue. Like salt in an open wound, the girl manifests all of the seductive raw materials that were lost to Sarah years ago. At first the reluctant housemates hiss and spit like angry cats. But when Sarah glimpses psychological bruises beneath Julie’s seeming perfection, she lunges for them, determined to transform what she learns into a writer’s vengeance.
Julie struts through most of the film half-naked, lounging nude by the spectacularly blue pool and baiting men from the nearby town into one-night stands. While the character is certainly an exhibitionist, Ozon’s intentions with Sagnier are not pornographic. Instead, he creates a visual point/counterpoint: Sarah’s souring physique and Julie’s statuesque shapeliness, Sarah’s mature British formality and Julie’s adolescent French libertinism. Who seems more monstrous in the end, the shallow temptress or the sophisticate who, while smiling, is a villain? It is no wonder that Sarah cannot tolerate the decorative cross on the wall of her room. She has little regard for her own conscience, which becomes very clear when a dead body shows up in the backyard shed.
Swimming Pool ends up not so much a mystery as a revenge story. But this time, Sarah’s wounds have not won our sympathy. This begs the question: Is Ozon suggesting that the artist at work is engaged in empty self-gratification?
Unfortunately, the film’s dissatisfying surprise-ending spoils intriguing questions and possibilities with a predictable contrivance. Despite Rampling’s compelling performance, we emerge from Swimming Pool feeling cheated. What began as a high dive becomes an abrupt landing in the shallow end.
A Second Opinion – by Michael Leary
There are a few things thing that make Swimming Pool a predictable film, and there are a few things that don’t. It really is classic, predictable Ozon. Take for example his lecherous Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000), a film that plays with itself like an obscene Rohmer script in three acts. Its form is timeless and classic, but somehow Ozon manages to turn the convention on its head through the storyline. Much in the same way, Swimming Pool is a classic mystery thriller, but one that manipulates itself to a rather unconventional level of mystery and leaves us with a wry unexpected twist that alters our perception of the entire film. Where the film gets highly unpredictable is that Swimming Pool’s twist turns out to be uncharted waters, even for someone like Ozon.
As is customary for Ozon, the camerawork in Swimming Pool is alluring, almost sensual. Similar to his other 2000 film, Under the Sand, his shots more frame states of mind than they frame characters. He places people in scenes by means of composition as Hitchcock often did, but with a certain continental flare. We move from texture to texture and focus to focus under the influence of some cinematic rhythm. Guided by this visual precision, Ozon takes us from a listless and despondent London to a charming villa in Southern France. The first quarter of the film is dominated by these silent sequences in which we simply watch Rampling explore this gentle shift in her environment. It may be these subtle psychological passages that Ozon has a gift for catching on film.
The script itself is by Ozon. It’s Claire’s Knee meets Vertigo or something of that nature. The story unfolds at a clever pace and even though at times it unravels by the numbers, we don’t mind because Rampling pulls it off with a frightening ease. Rampling plays Sarah Morton, the writer of a famous churlish detective series. Coming to grips with the fact that she is a potential has-been, she visits the office of her beguiling agent, a man transparently interested in Sarah as a cash-cow. So he advises her to take some time off at his French villa, and perhaps write a new book while she is there.
After a few days, to her unveiled dismay, her agent’s teenage daughter pops in for a holiday as well. Equal parts, shameless lust, sordid charm, evenly tanned skin, and je ne sais quois, Julie’s reckless abandon is a startling dialectic to Sarah’s British rigor. Everything from Julie’s dirty relationships with older men from surrounding towns to the foods she fills up the fridge with stand in contradistinction to Sarah’s emotional repression and ascetic diet. The delicate friendship they eventually forge occurs through conversations about Julie’s distant mother, and the hesitant rifling of Julie’s private journal rekindles Sarah’s literary genius. She begins to write a book, no doubt starring Julie and the clues that comprise the mystery of who she is. And as she writes, the narrative takes a few strange steps into the other side of the looking glass. On this side of the story we find that Sarah and Julie may not be all that different after all, and the cool blue water of the swimming pool becomes the backdrop for the stuff only the best dime store crime novels are made of.
All of these brilliantly crafted relationships unravel in the last frame of the film, closing on Rampling’s intriguing smile. The book she brings back from her vacation is like nothing she has ever published, not your average pulp “whodunit.” And as it turns out, neither is Swimming Pool. What seemed to be straightforward storytelling is revealed as an intimate character study. What seemed to be mysterious really just turns out to be intentionally vague. Some may leave the film underwhelmed; feeling tricked into a conclusion that raises more questions than the film has the ability to answer. But taken as a brilliant psychological adventure Swimming Pool has the fortunate position of being able to spurn such analysis, and the turn toward the inexplicable at the end of the film only serves to add more depth to a character that it seemed Rampling had taken as far as she could go.