Swimming Pool

By David Mumpower

July 28, 2003

This is about as clothed as Ms. Sagnier gets.

Never is it a good sign when a movie is being sold as one of the most surprising and shocking of the year, yet I realize a handful of minutes into the proceedings that I am pretty sure I know the ending. That in a nutshell is my Swimming Pool movie-going experience. While a solid film overall, it’s filled with empty and broken promises. In the end, its redemption lies in the twin performances of its female leads.

Swimming Pool is ostensibly a tale of two women. Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is a 50-something English woman and murder mystery writer who needs a good night of ronking in a big, bad way. She has hit a case of writer’s block, so her publisher, John Bosload, has offered her the use of his French villa in order to get away from it all and write in a land of hidden paradise. Once she gets there, Sarah’s sense of freedom is quickly abated by the arrival of John’s daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier).

Unlike her venerable roommate, naughty French woman-child Julie gets ronked, and ronked often. She is the town libertine, and is struggling with issues of self-esteem and self-worth. This is best demonstrated by the incredible lack of taste she has in the men she beds. Fat, bald and old works just as well as young and handsome for this teenage Mary Magdalene in training. Anybody reading this would have a shot with her. Anybody.

The tension between the sexually liberated, extroverted younger woman and the sexually frustrated, introverted older woman is the driving force of the movie. Their relationship is not, however, simply reduced to an issue of generational gap. Instead, a mother/daughter dynamic develops almost immediately between the two, as Sarah’s brusque disapproval inspires Julie to be more and more shocking.

A subtle back-story to their interactions is made at one point in the movie as waiter Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour) points out that the entire area resides near the ruins of the castle of the Marquis de Sade. Those of you who recently watched some of the character’s tales in Quills already know the functional relationship that exists between an oppressive authoritarian and a rebellious pot-stirrer. Any attempt to enforce righteous behavior on an unwilling subject most frequently leads to wilder and more outlandish behavior from the outsider instead of the anticipated compliance. Such is the case with the two women as Julie begins to rub off on Sarah more than the reverse.

While the interaction of the lead actresses is the body of the film, the twists and precipitous turns the plot takes are allegedly the selling point of this murder mystery. From the very beginning, it’s difficult to determine what parts of Swimming Pool are subtle clues as opposed to potential red herrings. The tiny cast of characters all behaves with such hedonism and guarded apathy that deciphering motivation is a particularly murky endeavor. Whether it be a rising author who seems fit to replace Sarah in publisher John’s heart, a daughter of one of the characters never mentioned until the final act, or the fate of Julie’s mother, the audience is kept guessing until the very end. Or at least, that’s the way Swimming Pool is supposed to work.

Accomplished French director François Ozon (8 femmes) is so certain of the enigmatic nature of his plot that he uses the character of John as a loose plot device in order to explain the ending to his audience. The assumption the director has made is that a clear spelling out of what has transpired along with his contempt for the people who don’t “get” what he is trying to do in Swimming Pool is required. The problem I have with this, aside from the incredible awkwardness of the end sequence dialogue, is that anyone with experience in this sort of genre has a decent chance of solving the jigsaw puzzle before the pieces in the box are even spilled out. Just from the jarring expository comments haphazardly inserted at the start of the movie, it’s relatively simple deduction to see exactly where Ozon wants to take the characters of Sarah, John and Julie. For a film being billed as the summer’s sexiest mystery, it’s hard to not feel incredibly let down by this lack of surprise.

Swimming Pool does remain an auspicious outing despite the lack of real mystery, though. Charlotte Rampling’s success in inhabiting the psyche of Sarah in order to create a remarkable movie character is justification alone for the purchase of a ticket. The forlorn desolation of a woman who has become a desperate shut-in cut off from any lingering remnants of society other than her publisher is a fascinating study. Through her eyes, we see what is required of an accomplished author in order to complete the painful creative process. Once this lost soul discovers the kinetic youthful exuberance of Julie, the type of girl Sarah had been in a prior life, she regains that part of herself that has been dead for years. The growth process is deliberate and at times laboriously paced, but it’s an astute acting performance that merits end-of-year awards consideration.

For her part, Ludivine Sagnier more than holds her own in scenes with the more accomplished actress. It’s not hyperbole to say that for art-house aficionados, this movie will do for her what Amelie did for Audrey Tautou. Copious amounts of full frontal nudity aside, Sagnier’s portrayal of Julie is a marvelous combination of lost soul seeking guidance with enchantress discovering sexual empowerment. She is mercurial, immature and immoral, but that simply makes the fruit more forbidden and thereby more tantalizing.

Swimming Pool wants to be an epic mystery full of twists and surprises. At its heart, though, this is a straightforward exhibition of acting talents with a sterling older woman and a rising starlet sustaining the movie with their chemistry. Even though I was not confounded very often by the red herrings, I still consider it to be a solid film with unusually precise performances.

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