Swimming Pool (2003)

Swimming Pool first published (in a slightly different version) by Movie Gazette, Sept 8, 2003

Why is it that films about writer’s block, despite featuring characters who have run out of ideas, turn out themselves to be so full of them? Barton Fink and Adaptation practically define involuted inventiveness, and now François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, with its understated cleverness, knocks most other films out of the water, as we watch an ageing novelist dive deep for her next work.

When author Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) tells her editor John Bosload (Charles Dance) that she has become dissatisfied with writing reserved English detective novels, John invites her to take time out at his empty country house (with swimming pool) in France. There she starts on a new writing project, until she is interrupted by the arrival of John’s sexually promiscuous daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier). At first, Sarah resents Julie’s free spirit, but soon she comes to recognise a part of her own youthful self in the girl, and, fascinated by Julie’s troubled story, begins work secretly on a new project entitled, simply, ‘Julie’ – until, that is, local waiter Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour), last seen by Sarah arguing with Julie, goes missing, and Sarah finds herself collaborating in an altogether different way with Julie.

Deftly distorting the distinctions between reality, dreams, fantasies and fiction, the placid surface of Swimming Pool conceals murky depths in which casual viewers will easily find themselves ensnared. Part psychological profile of middle-aged loneliness, disappointment and desire, part erotic thriller, and part study of a writer’s creative processes, Swimming Pool comes with an enigmatic ending which will have you reading and rereading the film in your head for days in a bid to work out just what it is you have seen happen, who the characters really were and how they related to one another. Here, even the most casually offhand details or remarks come to seem important in retrospect.

Swimming Pool is a film of great subtlety which might easily have floundered about in the shallow end were it not for the compelling performance of Charlotte Rampling, who handles brilliantly Sarah’s transformation from repressed old maid to confident woman of experience, as well as the progression of Sarah’s attitudes towards Julie from irritable envy to maternal affection and identification. Rampling is also cleverly cast. When Sarah asserts, “Don’t judge a book by its cover: I was around in Swinging London,” we can easily picture her less respectable past precisely because of Rampling’s own iconically notorious life in the Sixties – and her previous work with Ozon in Under the Sand playing a woman losing her grip on reality, leaves an evocative trace, suggesting at least one way in which we might interpret her character in this film.

Swimming Pool is an intergenerational female character study full of eroticism and intrigue, with a profound enigma at its heart and a strong element of metafiction to its murder mystery. And, as befits a film so concerned with the transgression of identity, despite being a French film it is mostly in English.

© Anton Bitel