Dir: Francois Ozon. France. 2003. 102mins
Nobody is better qualified than Francois Ozon to speculate on the sources of an artist's creativity. Six features in as many years have made him one of the most prolific and admired of European young guns. Swimming Pool is an entertaining and initially intriguing exploration of the way an artist cannibalises and embellishes life but it seems an anti-climax after the formal rigour of Under The Sand (Sous Le Sable) (2001) or the stylised silliness of the murder mystery musical 8 Women (2002). Critical support may be more grudging for his first English-language feature but the film should find a warmer reception from less exacting general audiences. In France, especially, the reunion of Ozon with Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier will make this a major commercial event and internationally it will still attract healthy arthouse business.
Ozon virtually reinvented Rampling's screen career when he cast her in Under The Sand and here he offers her another gift of a role as English thriller writer Sarah Morton. A closely observed composite of PD James and Ruth Rendell among others, Sarah is famous for a series of best-selling detective novels. Irascible and uptight, she is jealous of younger rivals and ill-at-ease with her celebrity, dismissing one devoted fan with a haughty: "I'm not the person you think I am." Lacking inspiration for a new work, she eagerly accepts an offer from her publisher John (Dance) to enjoy the run of his house in France. Fresh surroundings, solitude and rustic calm may be all she requires to set her creative juices flowing.
Swapping a rain-sodden London for sun-swept France, Sarah moves into the house with a swimming pool but her quiet sanctuary is shattered by the arrival of John's belligerent daughter Julie (Sagnier). Julie is everything that Sarah is not - young, carefree and promiscuous. Julie dives into the swimming pool naked. Sarah is hard-pushed to open the top button of her blouse. Julie works her way through the male population of the neighbourhood. The only thing Sarah wants in her bed is a good book. A situation is established that should allow for a robust clash of cultures, generations and temperaments.
There is some wry amusement to be derived from Sarah's horrified reactions to Julie's behaviour as a thong-clad lover lounges in the kitchen or another anonymous pick-up heads into the glaring sunlight. Julie is an affront to Sarah's orderly dedication to her craft but she is also a source of fantastic inspiration. Sarah finds herself writing some of the best work of her career imagining her own versions of reality and plotting a murder mystery different from anything that she has created before.
The kind of subject that might have attracted Claude Chabrol in the 1970s, Swimming Pool feels a little jaded now. Sarah is not supposed to be a great writer. Her bestsellers are potboilers like Dorwell On Holiday and Dorwell In A Kilt so it seems inevitable that what she builds from the raw material of her foreign sojourn and a publisher's daughter is a rather bland psychodrama of sexual tensions, murder and deceit. The result is a film that is playful but rarely strays from the shallow end of the pleasure pool.
Alain Resnais' Providence (1977) is just one instance of a film that found much more wit and malevolence in a writer's ability to play God with the real world and the people they encounter.
Swimming Pool does look inviting but Ozon displays a tiresome tendency to linger over the nubile flesh of Sagnier, although again this may just be another way of expressing Sarah's limited abilities to depict or explore female sexuality rather than a reflection on Ozon himself. It is a film that encourages such speculation - we assume Sarah is in some way a representation of Ozon in the same way that the emotional repressed Englishwoman who stumbles into a tale of murder and broken families is Sarah's own projection of herself.
Sagnier has the stroppy, sulky Julie down to perfection and Rampling remains an utterly commanding screen presence who even seems to hold herself differently to capture the tightly wound misanthropy of a woman as shuttered as the house she visits. Their performances, the crisp photography and air of mystery mean that Swimming Pool is not without its appealing qualities and there will be those who consider them sufficiently compelling to compensate for the bland ideas, unconvincing plot details and inescapable conclusion that this is one of the director's lesser efforts.
Prod co Fidelite
Int'l sales Celluloid Dreams
Prod Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Co-prod Timothy Burrill
Scr Ozon, Emmanuele Bernheim
Cinematography Yorick Le Saux
Prod des Wouter Zoon
Ed Monica Coleman
Music Philippe Rombi
Main cast Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Marc Fayolle, Jean-Marie Lamour