French director François Ozon doesn't like to repeat himself. His last film, 8 Women, was a theatrical, rather campy piece of fluff starring la crème de la crème of contemporary Gallic actresses. Before that came Under the Sand, an unsettling drama about a woman (Charlotte Rampling, giving perhaps her finest screen performance) who loses her grip on reality in the wake of her husband's disappearance. That film was preceded by Water Drops on Burning Rocks, a perverse psychosexual farce adapted from a play by the late German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Ozon's latest offering pirouettes another 180 degrees. A delicious little thriller about an uptight, ill-humored English mystery writer who becomes enmeshed in murder, Swimming Pool is at once comical, contrary, resourceful and ambiguous. Only after it has ended does one realize that its salient characteristic is actually playfulness.
In her second collaboration with Ozon, Rampling stars as Sarah Morton, a British crime novelist whose repeated success has done nothing to improve her sour disposition. Bored with her own exceedingly popular literary creation, Sarah wants to stretch her artistic muscles, a desire discouraged by her editor and sometime lover John (Charles Dance), who is all too familiar with his client's prickly personality and demands for attention. John suggests that Sarah take a holiday and offers her the use of his home in the South of France. After initial grousing, she accepts.
It turns out to be just what the doctor ordered, a beautiful, quiet country home, peaceful and sunny, the perfect environment for Sarah to work. Her tranquillity is almost immediately interrupted, however, by the unexpected arrival of John's teenage French daughter Julie (another Ozon favorite, Ludivine Sagnier). The product of one of John's many extramarital liaisons, Julie is sexy, nonchalant and completely uninhibited. She lounges around the swimming pool topless and sleeps with a succession of unsuitable men. When her attempts to get along with Sarah are met with undisguised animosity, she stops trying.
Sarah's curiosity about Julie, however, grows. She takes to voyeuristically watching the young woman, going so far as to rifle through her diary. In an even more shocking lapse of ethics, Sarah pilfers passages from the diary for her new novel.
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Giving away more of the plot would be unfair to the movie. While some of what transpires feels outlandish and even artificial, everything falls into place by the time the story draws to a close. And that's no mean feat.
Both actresses are superb. The normally sensual Rampling looks appropriately dour in unfashionable dresses and sensible shoes, but it is her clenched-jaw, erect bearing and purposeful strides that so perfectly communicate her petulant nature and disdainful attitude toward her housemate. A scene in which she attacks a plate of profiteroles in a passive-aggressive rage is wonderful.
With her perfect breasts, pouty Lolita-esque posture and enviable lack of self-consciousness, Sagnier manages to convey a wide range of seemingly contradictory emotions and qualities: brashness, shyness, confidence, vulnerability, wanton sexuality, persuasive innocence. While Julie is supposed to be all of these things, it's difficult to think of another young actress who could suggest such conflicting traits so convincingly and in such a sympathetic manner.
Swimming Pool is Ozon's first English-language film (though a quarter of it is in French -- subtitled, of course). Contributing greatly to the picture's overall effectiveness is Philippe Rombi's Hitchcock-flavored score, a chilling little melody that crops up at infrequent intervals like signposts along a deserted highway, warning viewers of something off- kilter just beyond the bend.