After last year’s fancifully trite 8 Women, Swimming Pool appears to be a deliberate return-to-form for François Ozon; the film re-teams the director with his Under the Sand star, Charlotte Rampling, and co-writer Emmanuele Bernhein. (Clare Denis collaborated with Benhein for the ravishing and far superior Friday Night.) Rampling appears as Sarah Morton, a stuffy mystery writer afflicted with a serious case of writer’s block. Vacationing at her agent’s French country house, she invites (and subsequently builds) a mystery when the agent’s daughter, Julie (a perpetually naked Ludivine Sagnier), appears on the scene and challenges the older, proto-Agatha Christie’s sanity.
In Under the Sand, Ozon evoked a gray area between reality and fantasy far more terrifying than anything you’ll find here. In Swimming Pool, this realm is more “simple” than “deceptively simple”; indeed, anyone half-expecting a requisite twist should easily spot the rhetorical transition that splits the film in two. However elegant and feral the film appears on the surface, it’s constantly betrayed by Ozon’s cultural reductivism. Because Sarah is British, she’s a prig. Because Julie is French, she’s a whore. (One phone conversation between Sarah and her elderly father suggests that Ozon’s idea of London is “that place where it rains a lot.”) When their worlds clash (like waves, one might say), the results are as humorous, sexy and overly familiar as any given episode of The Real World.
The swimming pool outside John’s chateau is little more than an abstract metaphor, though it does produce one particularly excellent set piece along the way. As the tarp that covers the pool is progressively drawn back, Morton slowly comes undone: she takes a smoke, takes a peek inside Julie’s diary and dances dirtily with a local hunk who serves her lunch by day. It’s difficult not to want to enter the film via its dopey metaphor. In retrospect, though, it’s best approached as an artistic wellspring for Ozon and his main character. Both are in search of a creative nirvana: Morton wants to leave her Dorwell novels behind and Ozon, perhaps, is looking for ways to trump Under the Sand.
It’s easy to be seduced by Ozon’s deadly use of silence. Far scarier than any one specific moment is the uncomfortable line the director allows his characters to walk between the deadpan and the grotesque. And because Rampling and Sagnier are so good, watching their characters is not unlike observing two sparring organisms see-sawing for power while trapped inside a pastoral petrie dish. Morton remains a relative cipher throughout and only once does Ozon allow her to truly come to life: when the woman uses her sex to preserve the film’s illusion and simultaneously free herself of her priggishness. It’s a wonderful moment that’s remembered long after a final bit of self-reflexive foolishness.