“Swimming Pool” is a sexy, stylish mystery that thrives on ambiguity. When a well-known British author takes a respite in the French countryside and is paid a surprise visit from her publisher’s promiscuous daughter, worlds collide. Quiet versus loud, modest versus brash, and cautious versus libertine. And if that’s not enough, throw in a murder to make things even more complicated. Setting long time British actress Charlotte Rampling against the up and coming Ludivine Sagnier pays off remarkably well, as director Francois Ozon creates a thought provoking mystery that will leave you re-analyzing every detail.
Celebrity crime fiction author Sarah Morton has not taken kindly to fame. Her best selling books, involving a detective similar to Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexworth, have entranced an audience of thousands. But Sarah rejects the notion of celebrity and rejects the concept of another installment in the series. She would prefer to write something different, something more personal. Noticing that she has become a little disgruntled and bored with her routine life, her publisher, John Bosload insists she take some time off. In fact, he gives her the opportunity to spend a few weeks at his plush French retreat.
Sarah welcomes the much-needed break and takes the train to southern France. When she arrives, she is instantly greeted by the chateau’s groundskeeper (Marcel), who kindly takes her to the remote hideaway. At the retreat, Sarah sets up her computer, goes to the grocery, and quietly begins to unwind. But just as she gets settled, her quiet is disrupted by the arrival of Julie, her publisher’s daughter. Julie is a sensual and carefree girl who lives by her own rules. She lounges at the pool, smokes and drinks day and night, and takes a different man to bed each night. Her arrival creates instant irritation between the peace and tranquility that Sarah desires and the boisterous and insouciant lifestyle that she likes. As time goes by and tensions taper off, the two actually begin to understand one another; however, when one of Julie’s conquests is murdered, the situation gets more complicated, further testing the water in this newly formed relationship.
“Swimming Pool” is a suspenseful, psychological yarn that unwinds like a game of cat and mouse. It contrasts the varying styles of Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier against each other to see who can annoy the other more. Rampling plays the tightly bound prude while Sagnier is the loosely bound vixen. And it’s an exquisitely subdued performance that Rampling delivers, her character so conservative and sterile that the mere thought of a sound or disruption would be like nails on a chalkboard. Meanwhile, Sagnier’s Julie coasts and boasts; yet she is seemingly comfortable with the British veteran who spans 4 generations of film. Together, the two break all the boundaries in their relationship while creating an intriguing chemistry of opposites.
Let there be no doubt, director Francois Ozon is a notorious provocateur with such early works as “Sitcom” and “Criminal Lovers,” two films that destroy the politically correct conceptions of violence and sexual dysfunction. But “Swimming Pool” is provocative in a completely different way. Rather than pushing the limits of vulgarity and obscenity, a la a Todd Solondz or Gaspar Noe, Ozon has evolved into an auteur, carefully building tension and deviance into a purposeful piece. Recently, Ozon has been compared to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock with his knack for intrigue, suspense, and almost magician-like ability to manipulate an audience. Building off of his previous work, “8 Women,” which created mystery out of a musical, “Swimming Pool” creates mystery out of sensuality. Here, chance meetings and sexual encounters turn into provocative drama where anything can happen, even murder.
One of the key points in understanding this movie is to carefully watch the transformation of Sarah and Julie’s bodies. Ozon helps us in this matter by seducing the women with the camera, starting with the tips of their toes and gradually moving up every curve and bump in their bodies. He wants you to be seduced and entranced. But he also wants you to notice how their bodies change. At the beginning of the film, Sarah is very uptight, controlling, and naïve. But gradually, she begins to loosen up, drink and smoke more frequently, dance, swim, and even entices Marcel with sexual confidence. Julie, on the other hand, enters the story as the carefree persona, drinking and smoking regularly, taking many men to bed, walking around exposed, and behaving openly uninhibited. But towards the end of the film, her character has a role reversal as well, reverting into a childlike innocence – tearful, scared, and shy. And you’ll also begin to notice that she is not as flawless as she would appear.
The film exists on multiple levels – the things that actually happen, the things that the author writes about in her book, and the things that never happened. To understand this film and its intent, look no further than Ozon’s prior work entitled “Under the Sand.” In that film, a husband and wife (also portrayed by Charlotte Rampling) are madly in love until one day, the husband disappears at sea. The film progresses in a unique way, detailing how Rampling’s Marie pretends her husband (Jean) still exists as a defense mechanism for the trauma that she is suffering internally. Her interactions with others such as Jean’s mother, her friend Amanda, and her new love Vincent are all affected by her emotional instability. And the ending to this film, like “Swimming Pool,” reveals a different side of the main character all together, one who is coping with a great loss all on her own. Both films salute the David Lynch school of film with their ability to blend reality with dreams.
“Swimming Pool” is great summer fare – the script is a real page-turner, the acting is commendable, and the direction is carefully thought out. Yet despite all of these good qualities, everyone seems to be clamoring about the abstruse ending to the film. “What just happened?” “Did I miss something?” “What was that all about?” The questions abound, but there’s only one solution to the film – an uncomplicated and obvious explanation requiring a few minutes of afterthought. Many things happen during Sarah’s stay at the French villa. Things that were taken down or uncovered are put back up and covered. People mysteriously come and go. And some things are not always what they appear to be. That’s why you should never judge a book, or in this case a film, by its cover!