Film Reviews: Wednesday July 23, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Skinny Dipping

The water’s fine and the movie stars are hot in the thriller Swimming Pool.

By KRISTIAN LIN

In a short period of time, 35-year-old François Ozon has become French cinema’s most flexible and wide-ranging stylist, channeling the shock value and absurdism of Almodóvar and John Waters (Sitcom), the claustrophobic staginess of early Fassbinder (Water Drops on Burning Rocks), the ellipses and elusiveness of Antonioni and early Polanski (Under the Sand), and the opulence and color of Sirk and MGM musicals (8 Women). The wildly different looks and tones of his films make him singularly hard to pigeonhole, yet clearly there’s an artist with a coherent point of view behind them all. His movies are highly volatile concoctions, seething with sexual tension, decked out in eye-catching artifice, and full of disdain for dramatic conventions. You can never be sure when they’ll erupt in murder or musical numbers, and their sense of humor can turn from puckish to morbid and back in the wink of an eye. Even when Ozon’s movies take wrong turns or opt for facile, shallow resolutions (as they almost always do), they remain fascinating products of a highly original, well-informed, and wonderfully perverse sensibility.

The opening scenes of his creepy current film, Swimming Pool, take place in London, as Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a highly acclaimed but extremely insecure mystery novelist, goes to her publisher’s office to complain about her writer’s block. The sharp compositions and neutral colors of these opening scenes are an appropriate background for the pointed exchange between Sarah and her publisher (Charles Dance), as well as for the publishing house’s backbiting atmosphere. Ozon’s showing us his strength, as he loses none of his assurance working outside his native country and language.

If you think the rest of the film will be like this, however, you’ll soon discover that you’ve been misled. The story picks up and moves to France along with Sarah, whose publisher offers her the use of his summer house in the southern part of the country. At first, the sunny weather and quietness of the countryside help Sarah’s writing enormously. Then, the publisher’s French daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) turns up unannounced. The girl, who takes up the whole room wherever she goes, seems specially sent to torment Sarah. She teasingly refers to Sarah as “Miss Marple,” and, less charitably in a French phone conversation, as “the English bitch with the broomstick up her ass.” She also walks around the house naked and comes home at all hours, bringing with her a string of butt-ugly older men with whom she proceeds to have noisy sex. These early scenes play as high comedy, and they take a more dangerous turn when Sarah recovers from her outrage and starts to write Julie in as a character in her new novel, going so far as to steal the girl’s personal diary for material.

With most of its dialogue in English, this chiller makes a fair introduction to Ozon’s filmmaking. It’s an even better introduction to Ludivine Sagnier, who manages to generate more of an erotic charge by herself than the entire cast of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. It’s not just that she spends the majority of this film in various states of undress. With her freckled face and her button nose, she tends to present a deceptively wholesome surface, as she did in Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks and 8 Women. (If Reese Witherspoon had a down-and-dirty side to her, she’d be something like this rising international star.) Sagnier also gives a keen sense of Julie’s emotional fragility underneath her sexual bravado. She has a truly upsetting scene late in the film, when Julie has something like a psychotic episode and reveals that she may be even more messed up than she appears. Rampling, who starred in Ozon’s Under the Sand, does a fine job playing the straitlaced foil, but this show belongs to Sagnier. Her performance is for those of us who’ve always suspected that the hottest chicks are the crazy ones.

From its early comedy, Swimming Pool ventures into increasingly dark waters, as someone disappears, details of Julie’s past come to light, and the mystery writer is caught up in her own mystery that may or may not be real. Ozon takes Henri-Georges Clouzot as his point of inspiration, and makes a number of overt references to the famous body in the swimming pool from Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. As he did previously in Under the Sand, he shows a great talent for creating a menacing atmosphere in a sun-drenched location — he should come to Hollywood and direct an old-fashioned noir thriller set in L.A.

Unfortunately, the movie’s end completely fails to make sense and feels like a bit of a cheat. Yet Swimming Pool has so much cinematic style, atmosphere, and star power going for it that you’re inclined to forgive it when it comes up short. With its sexual heat and murderous chills, this English-language French import succeeds as both high art and guilty pleasure, and makes a perfect treat for the summer.


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