Swimming Pool
review by Nicholas Schager, 4 July 2003

After turning his fascination with murder, mystery, and beautiful women into the enjoyably lightweight Agatha Christie musical 8 Women, French provocateur François Ozon returns to more malevolent ground with Swimming Pool, a thriller that re-teams the filmmaker with his Under the Sand star Charlotte Rampling. Rampling plays a stodgy British mystery novelist who, retiring to her publisher’s French summer house, becomes engaged (for good and bad) in a war of wills with her employer’s trampy daughter, who has unexpectedly arrived at the residence for the summer. Then someone winds up dead, and a whirlwind of nefarious scheming is set in motion.

Or is it? Ozon, working from his first English language screenplay (co-written by Emmanuèle Bernheim), sets the scene as if we were in for a straightforward suspense story in the vein of See the Sea, his chilling debut short film that also concerned two female strangers at an idyllic French cottage. Rampling’s Sarah, saddled with writer’s block as she attempts to produce the latest in a series of mystery novels, arrives at the house and immediately gets to work, the words seemingly coaxed out of her body by the soothing tranquility of her surroundings. She takes lunch at a nearby outdoor café, sits on a deck enjoying the sun, and eats her routine bowlful of vanilla yogurt – a comfortable but boring means of re-energizing her creative spirit. She’s a fuddy duddy in every sense of the word, a woman whose cold and clinical books deal not with characters but with carefully diagrammed murders and investigations, and this retreat seems to be the perfect way to get back in touch with her dull self.

All hell breaks loose when Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), the sex-kitten daughter of Sarah’s publisher, arrives without warning and decides to stay. The two are unlikely roommates, and Sarah immediately becomes infuriated over Julie’s slovenly habits, loud music, and penchant for bringing home different male lovers (some many years her elder) each night of the week. Julie is everything that Sarah is not – carefree, uninhibited, comfortable with her own sexuality – and the two clash openly about their disgust for the other. Until, that is, the volatile tension becomes a source of inspiration for Sarah, opening the author’s imaginative floodgates in a surge of artistic output. Their bickering doesn’t subside, but Sarah slowly begins to take a clandestine interest in the young harlot, going so far as to steal Julie’s diary in order to use it as the jumping-off point for her uniquely personal new novel.

Meanwhile, the house’s swimming pool looms ominously in the back yard, a giant rectangular entity that, when Sarah initially arrives, is covered by a tarp. As befitting this titular object, the pool (and its gradual uncovering) becomes a metaphor for Sarah’s emotional and sexual awakening, but this awkward and obvious imagery speaks to the film’s fundamental shortcoming: it’s so convinced of its psychological depth that it ignores, and thus fails to provide, any measure of genuine excitement. Not content to let his actress’ performances speak for themselves, the filmmaker gives Sarah’s a bland aquamarine bedroom, while her firebrand housemate Julie inhabits a blood red room, and the symbolism is shocking in its clumsiness – does Ozon, a director with a true gift for creepy understatement, really find these signifiers subtle or necessary? As in her previous (and far superior) collaboration with Ozon, Rampling effortlessly conveys the stunted inner life of a woman incapable of breaking free from self-imposed chains, but the actress has nowhere to take Sarah except in one direction, and that path turns out to be a real snoozer. Ozon constructs his film as a whodunit but then stages all high drama inside Sarah herself, a move that might have worked had the director not sapped his film’s momentum by providing us with scene after scene in which nothing very interesting occurs. Only after an interminable wait does he toss an actual murder into the fray, but the move feels designed as a lame afterthought, a means of simply placating his audience while also satisfying his schematic script’s need for a thematic climax that seals Sarah’s transformation from a frigid bore into an empowered modern woman.

As with all his work, the director proves himself a master of stillness, of uneasy sterility and quietude, and his creepily-paced tracking shots and sparse use of music lend the film an air of chilly malice. Yorick Le Saux’s lush cinematography sparkles with summertime radiance, and Ozon makes sure to pay special attention to his leading ladies; the ogling camera repeatedly gliding over Rampling and Sagnier’s bodies from toe to head, Ozon implicates viewers as unabashed voyeurs while simultaneously allowing us the pleasure of reveling in his strong-willed protagonists’ physical sumptuousness. This is most readily apparent with Sagnier, whose petite, busty frame is frequently free of the constraints of clothing. We’re meant to find this undress as representative of Julie’s blithe constitution, but, like so much of the film’s tired plotting, Ozon goes to the well so many times that one eventually finds Sagnier’s nudity simply an immature symptom of the director’s own indulgent fantasies.

The only thing keeping Swimming Pool afloat is the combustible chemistry Ozon elicits from his leading ladies, who imbue their petty squabbles and minor confrontations with a deliciously snide contentiousness. Rampling and Sagnier trade blows with the everyday nastiness of people who feel right at home with anger, resentment, and distrust, and their tête-à-têtes -- expertly framed in Ozon’s compositions with an eye toward spatial disharmony  -- are the glue that tenuously holds the film’s flimsy premise together. Ozon tacks on a worthless surprise epilogue that’s sure to leave more than a few moviegoers scratching their heads, but given the phoniness of the entire affair, it’s unlikely that viewers will care to figure it out. Sarah’s passions may eventually be liberated by her experiences in France, but I’d just as soon suppress the memory of this elegant misfire.

Directed by:
François Ozon

Charlotte Rampling
Ludivine Sagnier
Charles Dance
Marc Fayolle
Jean-Marie Lamour
Mireille Mossé
Michel Fau
Jean-Claude Lecas
Emilie Gavois-Kahn
Erarde Forestali
Lauren Farrow
Sebastian Harcombe
Frances Cuka
Keith Yeates
Tricia Aileen

Written by:
Emmanuèle Bernheim
François Ozon

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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