swimming pool (2003)


director: francois ozon

charlotte rampling, ludivine sagnier, charles dance

There’s a moment about a half hour into Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool when it feels like the viewer is in the hands of a master. We’re watching Charlotte Rampling as Sarah Morton, a middle-aged British mystery writer, as she begins to relax into the routine of a small French village, buying groceries and enjoying the small but very palpable pleasure of sitting in a café at midday.

It’s an undeniably banal moment, but it’s full of telling details about Rampling’s Sarah, a woman whose life is starting to harden at the bitter edges. Passing racks of wine and shelves of delicacies at the market, she opts for Diet Coke and tubs of yogurt - the modern British spinster at leisure, or so it seems.

The house in the country has been loaned by her publisher, played by the very saturnine Charles Dance, and Sarah’s spartan routine is suddenly shattered by the late night arrival of his estranged daughter, played by the very nubile Ludivine Sagnier. Sagnier’s Julie is a troubling free spirit, who fills the fridge with foie gras and cheese and brings home a different, unappetizing local man every night. Worst of all, for Sarah, she pulls back the tarp on the swimming pool, where she lounges topless at the height of the day.

Initially annoyed, Sarah soon becomes fascinated by Julie, by her guiltless promiscuity and her hints of a troubled past. She abandons the novel she started and begins writing one based on her new housemate, covertly rifling through her diary for details. Sarah even starts gorging herself on Julie’s foie gras, heads off to the village for wine and éclairs and a flirtation with a handsome waiter. She even shares a joint with Julie, and drops hints at her own wild past in “Swinging London”.

Thanks to Rampling’s rapport with Ozon, Sarah’s metamorphosis is eminently watchable, and while Sarah’s character is the whole of the story, the director’s camera has a graceful authority, never making a misstep, firmly directing our gaze at every gesture and expression. Alas, it doesn’t last.

Just as it’s a rule that a gun glimpsed in the first act must be fired in the third, it’s inevitable that an actor playing a mystery writing will, like Miss Marples, be called upon to solve a murder. Even worse, the caper turns into a musing on the nature of creativity, and an ending thick with fuzzy, suggestive implausibility. It’s the kind of thing that bedevils all of Ozon’s films (Under the Sand and 8 Women are the most recent), which begin with such dash and end so unhappily.