Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Swimming Pool (2003)

François Ozon channels Alfred Hitchcock in his psychological thriller Swimming Pool.  Where Hitchcock only hinted Ozon marches fearlessly ahead in this surprisingly effective, sexually dynamic mystery that is more conventional then it ought to be.  Actors Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier as a would-be mother / daughter team break through the convention with fascinating performances, bringing out the rich nuance in Ozon’s macabre screenplay.

Rampling plays Sarah Morton, acclaimed author of the Inspector Dorwell series.  Sarah retreats to her publisher’s summer home in France to find inspiration for a new, watershed project.  When at first she begins writing the next in her Dorwell series, her tranquil visit is interrupted by Julie, her publisher / lover’s daughter.  Julie is a punk: brash, keeps odd hours, and is inconsiderate of the reserved English author’s peace of mind.  Julie brings different men home and has loud sexual trysts which agitate and seemingly arouse and fascinate Sarah.  The film doesn’t become a murder mystery until ¾ into it, and that section of the film is its weakest, but the set-up to the fatal accident gives us two very opposing rivals, one sexually liberated and one who, in Julie’s words, only writes about dirty things and never does them.  The dirtiest of things, the act which soils most, is done by the less likely of the women.

Ozon is unafraid to show Ludivine Sagnier’s beautiful body.  It’s hard to accept this is the same girl who played the impish Catherine in Ozon’s 8 Women.  I admit I didn’t want to see her naked having adored her in Love Songs.  I’ve associated a certain innocence with her.  Here her breasts are everywhere, and she touches herself more explicitly than a lot of actresses would on screen.  Some of her boy toys’ rear ends are seen, too, and these guys are not really the kind you might want to see naked.  This is something that bothered me about Julie.  She is so beautiful and sexy that you’d think she could attract hotter guys, at least guys her age.  And she probably could, but as we slowly learn this girl must be starving for attention, more so than we might thing even at the film’s climax.  The only nudity that embarrassed me was Rampling’s full frontal shots.  I felt that, while what the character was doing was interesting, it did not grow organically from the script and that Ozon was abusing his actress.  Then I realized that Rampling starred in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974, and then I understood that she is a fearless performer.

Her relationship with Sagnier’s Julie is really interesting.  Sarah, we sense, is an empty woman.  Her life is lived in her writing.  The only man at home is her invalid father; her lover—her publisher, Julie’s father—keeps big secrets from her, and she doesn’t have children.  I never sensed that Sarah wanted kids, but the twists she takes in her relationship with Julie really allow them to bond as mother and daughter.  I don’t want to give it away, but trust me, they do bond.  It could be that Sarah’s interest in Julie is solely as subject matter for a new book seemingly inspired by the writer’s experiences with the young girl.  In that case Sarah gets too intimately involved in the messes of her characters, but then again it is often said a writer’s characters become like their children.  Sarah’s efforts to protect Julie can be seen as motherly.

I can’t say, though, that I understood the ending.  To be honest, I guessed—and it will be fairly obvious to those familiar with the devices of thriller plots—the twist ending well before the finale, but the way the story unfolds is both unexpected and predictable.  So what does that ending do to Sarah and Julie’s relationship?  I honestly don’t know.  I can make assumptions, or at least explain it to myself, but my explanations alter or destroy the great material of the film, the relationship between Julie and Sarah.  But a twist ending in a thriller is often a letdown.  If the material is excellent, the bad ending can be overlooked, at least by me.  While the ending is not bad, it leaves a lot of questions at too late a point in the experience.  But I didn’t mind, just like I didn’t mind the some of the convention in the later part of the picture.  It is old-fashioned fun but with a sexually explicit twist to murder mysteries.

I’m really starting to like François Ozon’s work.  I’ve seen 4 films, and the first, Under the Sand, was very boring.  It also starred Charlotte Rampling, but it’s the kind of arty flick where the subtly was so subtle that any subtext was altogether lacking.  The other three have been terrific.  Swimming Pool isn’t unique or original, but I was not bored.  There were a few moments where I was nervously inching towards the screen, and if a thriller can do that, it’s won.

Swimming Pool (2003)
Director: Francois Ozon
Writers: Francois Ozon and Emmanuele Bernheim
Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Charles Dance and Ludivine Sagnier
France / UK
In English and French
Runtime: 102 minutes

IMDB link:

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