Still Waters Run Deep--If They Run at All--In François Ozon's Swimming Pool
Swimming Pool, the first English-language film from hot French director François Ozon (Under the Sand, 8 Women), is a bargain--two movies for the price of one. The first version is experienced in the theater, and it's a bit of a chore to sit through, stuffed as it is with overbearingly obvious symbolism and repetitive situations. The second version is the movie you're invited to reassemble afterward in your mind, only after you've been delivered the vital pieces of information that Ozon withholds, wickedly, until the movie's last minutes.
Knowing, going in, that Swimming Pool is harboring secrets shouldn't spoil anything--viewers will be alerted, almost immediately, to their eventual arrival. Anytime a movie introduces a mystery writer, especially a cynical hack, as its protagonist, the audience should immediately begin looking for clues and murder weapons--particularly if this bored writer, frustrated by the lack of critical respect for her successful but shopworn detective series, is sent off to a remote location for inspiration.
In Swimming Pool, this author takes the form of the resurgent Charlotte Rampling, who plays Sarah Morton, the kind of bitter, brittle spinster who seems to fall on London sidewalks with the rain. Her understanding publisher--and infrequent lover (Charles Dance)--offers Sarah his restful house in Provence, where the closest point of interest is the chateau of the Marquis de Sade and whose most highly touted amenity is a backyard swimming pool. "I absolutely loathe swimming pools," Sarah grumbles.
Off Sarah flies to France, where she's greeted by the home's elderly caretaker, whom she insults in the effortless British manner (cf. Edina and Patsy's similar encounter in the Absolutely Fabulous episode "France"). After unpacking--and removing a wooden cross from her bedroom wall--Sarah quickly establishes her working vacation's routine. This consists of 1) writing stuff on her laptop, 2) exiting the French doors that lead to the balcony and breathing in fresh air, 3) visiting the nearby café to squint contentedly in the sunlight, 4) greedily wolfing down great amounts of plain yogurt, and 5) sneering at the swimming pool. How much you enjoy Charlotte Rampling performing this routine will depend a lot on whether you enjoy a cinematic connection to Charlotte Rampling. Sour and frumpy here, she's playing against the erotically charged, vitally sexy type that has defined her career. Apparently, Ozon means for this to be as startling and satisfying as, say, Jack Nicholson's performance in About Schmidt. If Rampling means nothing to you, though, you might not find this commentary on her screen persona as satisfying. (Ozon's most recent film, the camp mystery 8 Women (2002), assumed that the viewer showed up with at least a cursory knowledge of the entire cast's filmographies.)
Sarah's routine begs to be disrupted, and boy is it ever. Cue the arrival of Julie, the publisher's nymphomaniac daughter, whose own vacation routine is 1) being topless, 2) bringing home and loudly screwing men old enough to be her father, and 3) disrupting Sarah's routine. Julie is played by Ozon regular Ludivine Sagnier, who with this film could single-handedly (perhaps not the right word) restore breasts to their former pre-eminence in international cinema. To Sarah, the impetuous Julie is profoundly irritating, but also interesting, and it's not too long before bits and pieces of Julie begins to show up on the pages emerging from Sarah's printer. (Think, viewer, Why would Sarah bother printing out the pages of a work in progress?). It's when Sarah and Julie set their caps for the same homme, a café waiter with a porn star's mustachioed slinkiness, that events start slipping, fatefully, toward the swimming pool.
What is Ozon up to here? He's established himself as a favorite of actresses (think George Cukor) who moves capably among different genres, but he has been accused of superficiality and glibness. With the haunting and engrossing Under the Sand (2000), his previous collaboration with Rampling, he displayed far more interest in character while still maintaining an atmosphere of unsettling mystery. Swimming Pool feels like a dive into shallower waters, and it's hard to tell whether he's sending up or wallowing in the psychological-mystery genre. Ozon holds off showing his hand until the very last minutes of the movie. It's a fearless gambit that succeeds only if audiences leave wanting to reappraise everything--the tone, the performances--that's come before. It fails if they simply shrug and walk out.