If François Ozon’s 2000 surprise knockout Under The Sand
could be roughly categorized as a subtle, sexy thriller, and his 2002 follow-up 8 Women
a tongue-in-cheek genre exercise, than his latest film is a strange, unaffecting synergy of the two. In Swimming Pool
Ozon teams up with Charlotte Rampling again, who plays successful novelist Sarah Morton; the kind of English mystery writer who has an avid fan base made up entirely of elderly women and who’s success has hinged on her series of “Inspector Dorwell” mysteries. Lately Morton seems irritated by her current position in popular literature (the film opens with an old woman recognizing Morton on the underground and Morton abruptly dismisses the starstruck woman: “You must have mistaken me with someone else”), and with Rampling’s intense, intelligent good looks it seems certain that Morton has a great novel in her just waiting to get out. She decides to travel to her publisher friend’s French country house, hoping the quiet and isolation will allow her access to the best of her talents.
As Morton makes her way to France and settles into the house Ozon drops silent but overt details to her personality. Uptight and introverted, Morton lives alone in London, caring for her aging father, and her face registers somber but ambiguous disappointment when she receives a call at the country house announcing that her (male) publisher friend would not be joining her. Springing for only a meager cup of tea at an atmospheric town café, and fixing herself meals that consist only of a giant bowl of yogurt, Morton is clearly a woman who has withdrawn into a self-imposed exile of conservation and loneliness. Never the less she immediately finds inspiration in her warm and secluded settings and begins work on what is presumably her new and different novel. Alas, the silence of at the house is not meant to last, as the publisher’s nubile young daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) descends on Morton’s sanctuary and proceeds to sleep with half the local male population, make noise, get drunk and high, and swim around provocatively topless in the house’s pool. With measured predictability these two women’s lives collide; Morton’s anal-retentive need for restrained isolation and composure is understandably upset by Julie’s immoral sexual deviancy and flagrant disregard for Morton’s soul-cleansing need to write away her current funk. While the tension between the two escalates the most a unusual thing comes to light in Swimming Pool
, a strange current of underlying humor. Oh, it is nothing as overt as 8 Women
's deliberate extravagant camp, but Ozon does seem to either be playfully and subtly mocking Sarah Morton or at perhaps Morton’s situation itself, and its obvious conventionality. Whether it is the fact that Morton is such a square prude yet seems to have a problem with a cross hung over her bed (later complimenting an offhand remark about her “swinging London” past), her near-longing gaze and appraisal of Julie’s body, or a number of other very slight and semi-suggestive visual cues, Ozon makes what should be slightly menacing and sexy in fact be remarkably amusing, a confusing facet only later explained.
Ramping’s gorgeous eyes have the innate ability to go from intensely distant to poisonously menacing in an instant, and in one of a number of expected genre twists the enraged Morton begins to rewrite her book based around Julie’s infuriating activities. Later, irritated by Julie’s overt sexuality-in this case leaving dirty panties at the scene of some sexual deviancy-Morton steals into the young nymph’s room, takes her journal, and starts working its information into her book. What exactly Morton is writing about-whether maliciously revenge commentary or simply a word for word daily diary-is not clear, though like any movie about an artistic inventor of fiction the whole of Swimming Pool
always leaves itself open for interpretation as a product of Morton’s mind. The first shock of the film, however, and the first key to its semi-hidden methodology, is that when Morton starts writing her revised work, oh-so-cleverly titled Julie
, her computer shows that the manuscript she had been writing prior to Julie’s arrival at the town house was called Dorwell Takes A Trip
. Suddenly, cleverly, a blast of fresh air rushes in and forces a reevaluation of the oddly generic narrative trappings of Swimming Pool
; Sarah Morton is a hack! Yes, despite Rampling’s smolderingly intelligent demeanor and attractive, if conservative, visual appearance, this woman is no better a writer than her inane mystery series suggests. Much credit is due to writer/director Ozon for casting such an interesting actress and give her such a character; Rampling’s entirely believable appearance as an uptight bourgeois artist irritated at her popular success makes the audience easily assume she is as good as she thinks she can be. Hilariously, a couple scenes later it comes out that her last Dorwell novel, set in Scotland, was titled Dorwell Wears A Kilt
-the final nail in the coffin for the theory of Morton as hack, and Swimming Pool
as comedy masked as erotic thriller.
This key moment should cast an entire new light on the following half of the film where Julie and Morton’s tension-riddled dynamic comes to a sexual peak and results in a murder and a cover-up in typical “thriller” fashion. The discovery of Morton’s true talent lends the film an unusual tone of overarching commentary, as if the conventional genre film unfolding before our eyes is simultaneously being negated by the reminder that what we are watching is the work of a lousy artist. Brave of Ozon to be as self-reflexive as this, far braver-though far less interesting, witty, resonating and enjoyable-as Spike Jonze’s semi-similar artistic warp piece Adaptation
; for Ozon is willing to structure his film almost entirely around the work of his artist, while Jonze only commits his last act. Even more interesting is the semi-complete lengths Ozon goes to conceal the objective of his film. With both Rampling and Sagnier giving terrific performances (Sagnier is especially a surprise, considering her role as the young, unattractive daughter in 8 Women
), Rampling speaking through her eyes and Sagnier through her body-Ozon boldly, almost humorously, exploits both in the name of the film’s erotic thriller classification–the film has enough power on its surface to fool most viewers into thinking its simply what it appears to be, even with a requisite twist ending. Yet, in the end, Swimming Pool
has profound trouble struggling its way out of its rather bland genre rendition; just because Ozon coats his film in covert artistic commentary does not mean the surface film is any more entertaining to watch. In fact the entirety of Ozon’s film suffers the fate of the last act of Adaptation
: it just does not work, even down to the film’s innate pseudo-artistic title, but of course that is the point. The problem is that Jonze had an hour and half before the purposely-disastrous ending to not only layer some delightful comedy, but also give his art’s struggle more profound implications. With nearly all of Ozon’s film working as bad fiction, there is little breathing room to provide context, and what is left is an uninvolving film that teeters dangerously close to the kind of uninvolving movie it condones.