Swimming Pool

(François Ozon, France, 2003)


In a few short years, French director François Ozon has staked out his remarkable style and sensibility. Between the intense, unreal drama of Under the Sand (2000), the camp histrionics of Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000) and the lush, musical comedy of 8 Femmes (2002), Ozon has found his turf: enclosed spaces, melodramatic passions, superb filmmaking craft, and a droll eye for modern manners.

Plus that indispensable focus which aligns him with Pedro Almodóvar: the highest subject of all, for this splendidly queer artist, is the rapport between women.

Swimming Pool has disappointed some of Ozon's admirers. It does not represent his finest work, but it is still a delight. It is best enjoyed for its incidental, surface pleasures rather than for its slightly forced attempt at deeper significance.

Sarah (Charlotte Rampling) is a crime novelist, an amalgam of Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Agatha Christie. She is uptight, very British, rather unpleasant. Her relationship with her publisher, John (Charles Dance), is seething and unresolved. She decamps to John's holiday home in France to write a new book. But her peace and quiet is smashed by the arrival of John's free-living, French daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier).

The battle of wits between these two women eventually leads to some dark, disturbing events involving several of the unglamorous men who occasionally trail through the grounds. But the blacker the situation, the more that Sarah flowers and comes into her own, cleaning up the mess and even turning into a seductress.

Ultimately, the script by Ozon and Emmanuele Bernheim becomes a bit of a fantasy/reality puzzle for the viewer. As in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002), the power of the imagination is celebrated as something that makes living light and manageable – even when amorality is in the air. And both movies hinge on the motif of water in a pool or bath – ambiguously a symbol of both death and rebirth.

The ending will leave some viewers in head-scratching mode. But it is all the wicked byplay leading up to that point which really matters. Rampling is superb, complementing a knack for introspective drama with her skill at playing dry comedy. Sagnier has taken a huge leap since her girlish, innocent turn in 8 Femmes; here she is a casually erotic bombshell, the perfect foil to her repressed elder.

MORE Ozon: 5 x 2, Short Films of François Ozon

© Adrian Martin October 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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