Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier
he most important thing to say is that, if you have any plans whatsoever to see Swimming Pool, you should see it without reading anything about it. To be more explicit: this review will contain some plot spoilers.
But anyway. Swimming Pool starts atypically, and not too promisingly, with crime novelist Sarah Morton (played by Charlotte Rampling) being recognised on the Underground (I think it was the Central line) by a terminally middle-aged woman who introduces herself as an avid reader. Morton’s snappy, snippy response is to state that she must be thinking of someone else. Her brusqueness is later explained at a meeting with her publisher; she’s burned out and tired of the constrictions of her genre, having apparently been thoughtlessly churning out her best-selling books for far too long. There follows a hopelessly British exchange of purest weary cynicism between Morton and her publisher, before the solution arrives: go stay in the publisher’s villa in the south of France for relaxation and hopeful inspiration. This scene, for what it’s worth, appears to have used the horrible-looking film effect now seemingly compulsory for British TV shows.
The early scenes of Sarah relaxing in the house are interestingly flawed. The sets are strangely sparse; shots are inelegantly composed, mostly stationary, or with some clumsy slow camera movement. Every location is a stereotyped idea of an idyllic French setting; every character a member of a clichéd quaint populace. The action is slow, minimal, taking its time to show the smallest and most irrelevant details. It’s perfect for Sarah, who finds herself writing with consummate ease, informing the publisher that this book is probably going to be quite funny. And then comes the sudden arrival of the publisher’s daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) - a beautiful young French girl with a passion for one-night stands and general hedonism.
The trailer gave the impression of… well, it didn’t give much impression at all, providing no suggestion of any hook, any dynamic, anything. It’s an amazingly accurate microcosm of much of the film, indeed of any parts that are safe to reveal without unhelpful spoilers (on which note, anyone who hasn’t seen it and has even the faintest plans to, who didn’t heed my warning above, really should heed it immediately). The apparent pointlessness of it all really works to the film’s advantage; Julie’s succession of one-night stands, her annoyance at Sarah, Sarah’s annoyance at her tranquillity being disrupted, and so on, are played in such a way as to suggest… I don’t know, some kind of sinister dread, perhaps. This is exaggerated by a fascinatingly melodramatic score. Yet…
There’s definitely a certain level of conflict between the two women. Julie is at first tremendously annoying, amazingly self-confident and uncooperative in a characteristically French manner. Yet, of course, Sarah is hardly likeable; she’s terminally uptight (or, as Julie has it, “that English bitch has a broomstick up her butt”), so worn-down by life that she’s determined to stop anyone else from ever having any fun. But it’s all so petty; Sarah tells Julie to go away because she’s busy and wants peace and quiet, Julie petulantly responds by saying that she’s bought lots of nice food and was going to suggest they eat it together but has changed her mind, Sarah secretly eats some of the lovely food at night. But having said this, there really is a fascinating dynamic here. Sarah’s resentment is predicated on jealousy, and on remembering her past, and Julie insightfully describes her as “just a frustrated English woman who writes about dirty things but never does them” - an insult itself caused by frustration, but which is in many ways important.
This part of Swimming Pool is amazingly compelling, yet this is derived from the odd contrast between the movie’s obvious qualities - a seamless switch to an attractive and almost invisible style of cinematography, the clear talent of both Rampling and Sagnier - and the presence of semi-flaws and apparently self-parodic elements. The plot, as hinted at, is almost completely non-existent, and slightly silly, yet there are constant cues as to some drama that never materialises. Inevitably, Sarah starts to write about Julie, and Julie finds out, but all she does is make a few casual, almost invisible hints, never displaying the annoyance that I expected she would have felt. The dialogue is often quite silly, potentially as a result of having been translated from writer-director Francois Ozon’s French screenplay into English. And, well, Julie herself seems like a cliché, a mix of exaggerated fantasy object and stereotypical French independence and spirit and such. The occasional pans across her naked body seemed almost a parody of a soft-porn aesthetic or something, and most if not all other sexual scenes in the movie possess a similar nature.
"I can't believe my Mom fell for that whole "Born To Run" line."
If it’s not clear, because of the nature of the movie, the only way I feel able to approach the review is to describe my experience of watching it. So all I can say is how much I enjoyed watching the first hour or so, with its subtle and uncertain mix of intentional and unintentional comedy - if, indeed, any of it was intended; maybe Ozon intended to make a straight-faced and grippingly tense psycho-drama. Having said that, I’m wholly convinced later developments mean that the ironic overtones were deliberate, and, if they weren’t… well, who’s to say that Ozon has a clue about his own movie?
It’s at this point that Swimming Pool shows its true colours, with - and this is where the spoilers start - Sarah’s sudden, inexplicable feeling that Julie has killed her latest conquest. The entire tone of the movie shifts, making use of sudden cuts, slow zooms, out-of-the-blue ear-shattering noises, symbolic images, and clever, unexpected use of music. Surprises abound: a suspicious bulge under the pool cover turns out to be the red inflatable air mattress, which, when Sarah returns, is suddenly seen to be occupied by Julie. The surprises themselves turn intriguingly self-parodic; when Sarah seeks information at the house of a peripheral character, she is greeted by an old-looking dwarf, who turns out to be not the man’s wife but his daughter. Eventually, when the truth comes out, Julie is only able to explain her actions as being for Sarah for her book. What’s more, the character delineations change; as Sarah begins to recapture some lost youth, Julie becomes more conservative. As they start to form a friendship, with overtones of a mother-daughter relationship, the balance of power almost unnoticeably switches from Julie to Sarah.
It was only gradually that I began to realise what Swimming Pool is. Not just an unusually impressive character study, it’s a movie about the creative process, and the inter-relation of fiction and fact, fantasy and reality. In this regard, it’s far more successful than last year’s Adaptation, which asked the viewer to be ahead of the story at all times, its meta-narrative only present to allow creators and viewers to be complicit in self-congratulation. Swimming Pool, by contrast, deliberately does everything it can to catch you off guard, and never encourages viewers to think themselves clever or that they’ve got it, not even at the very end - instead, it tries for involvement, immersion, and an all-pervasive sense of mystery. There’s far too much that I’ve only hinted at, deserving of analysis and discussion between people who’ve seen the movie; but suffice it to say, I became so completely caught up in it that I’ve even had some difficulty writing this review. All I can say is, I loved it. See it, before you’ve read this.
By: Dan Emerson
Published on: 2003-09-11