Director : François Ozon
Screenplay : François Ozon and Emmanuèle Bernheim
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Charlotte Rampling (Sarah Morton), Ludivine Sagnier (Julie), Charles Dance (John Bosload), Marc Fayolle (Marcel), Jean-Marie Lamour (Franck), Mireille Mossé (Marcel's Daughter)
François Ozon’s much-talked-about Swimming Pool features one of those “Huh?” endings that people love to discuss in serious tones as they walk out of the theater and drive home, as if they’re deconstructing some great philosophical paradox. It’s an ending that calls into question everything that came before, and it will make many want to go back for a repeat viewing to relive the film’s narrative knowing the twist at the end so they can determine when reality became fantasy. The twist itself is not a complete cheat, but such endings have become eye-rolling routine in the last 10 years, and its slick gimmickry shouldn’t detract from the film’s true asset: its depiction of a complex relationship between two very different women.
Charlotte Rampling, who starred in Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000), plays Sarah Morton, a, stuffy, button-down British crime novelist who is on the brink between middle and old age and is not at all happy with her life. Sick of penning mystery-series installments eagerly awaited by the white-hair set and feeling younger, possibly more talented writers nipping at her heels, she steals away to the south of France to spend some quiet time in a Provencal villa owned by her longtime publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance).
The villa is just as John described it, right down to the titular swimming pool, but one thing he forgot to mention is that he has an estranged twentysomething French daughter named Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) who shows up from time to time and stays there. Just when Sarah is getting into a routine and making progress on her next book, Julie arrives in the middle of the night and turns her life upside down. As Sarah is stuffy and repressed, Julie is wildly liberated, lounging unabashedly naked by the swimming pool, partying until the wee hours of the morning, and bringing home a different sleazy guy each evening for loud sex in the living room. Everything about the two women is in direct opposition—Julie’s long, tangled blonde hair vs. Sarah’s short crop job, Julie’s skimpy, nymphet clothing vs. Sarah’s frumpy sweaters and slacks, Julie’s sloppiness and unruliness vs. Sarah’s orderliness. It’s a roommate match made in hell.
Yet, just as Sarah’s brittle stuffiness is not the demeanor of a happy woman, neither is Julie’s libertine flaunting. There is no real joy in her provocative lifestyle and carefree sexuality; its openness is constricting in that she acts solely in reaction, rather than of her own free will (although exactly what she’s reacting to is left generally vague, her past alluded to only in bits and pieces). Julie is a deeply scarred and sad young woman, and her licentiousness is just a façade. In this way, Sarah and Julie are more mirror images of each other than opposites—they just willfully hide their pain behind strikingly different behaviors.
Thus, it isn’t surprising that, despite initial friction, a bond of sorts develops between the two women, although it is tenuous and fraught with deception. Sarah sneaks into Julie’s room and reads her diary, using it as inspiration for a book, one altogether different from the ones she has been writing. Julie sneaks into Sarah’s room and reads the book, discovers that she is its inspiration, but hides this knowledge and instead begins behaving in ways that she feels work for Sarah’s narrative, even when it involves violence. Julie gets Sarah to smoke pot and brings home a local waiter (Jean-Marie Lamour) for her. Sarah gets Julie to go to dinner with her and talk at some length about her past, particularly her mother.
In the last third, Swimming Pool veers into thriller territory, incorporating a murder and its subsequent cover-up, which bind Sarah and Julie together that much more. Their surrogate mother-daughter relationship takes on a frightening dimension, one in which they would literally do anything for each other, even if it seems to go against their characters. All of this is intricately connected to that twist ending everyone’s talking about, which is why it’s not a complete cheat. But, what makes Swimming Pool work as well as it does is not the ending, but the emotionally perilous and genuinely intriguing events that lead up to it. The pleasure is in the journey, not the destination.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick