Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Swimming Pool

With her watchful, slanted eyes and sliver of a smirk, Charlotte Rampling has a feline edge of mystery and barely suppressed ferocity that few directors have known how to tap into. But for French director Francois Ozon, who wrote the lead in Swimming Pool for her, the 58-year-old actress is an inspiration. “Swimming Pool, like Under the Sand, is the fruit of a true collaboration between Charlotte and me,” he told Cinema magazine. “We’ve found one another, and we’re not about to let each other go.”

Under the Sand, the unsettling story of a devoted wife who slowly goes mad after her husband’s sudden disappearance, became an art-house hit in this country and did well in France largely on the strength of Rampling’s powerful performance. She’s also onscreen for almost every scene in Swimming Pool, the story of a woman who quite deliberately creates her own reality, but this time she dances a compelling tango with an equally strong young actress.

Sarah Morton (Rampling) is a prim and pruney English mystery writer who lives with her aging father and nurses an unrequited crush on her publisher, John (Charles Dance). Nothing seems to make her happy, not even the success of her popular detective series. To help her out of her creative rut, John sends her to his summer home in the south of France. whose blue shutters, tile roof, and ivy-covered walls, give it the look of a perfect hideaway. It even has a swimming pool, though ominous music starts to swell every time Sarah looks at it.

Smirking that little smirk as she turns her face up to the sun, Sarah settles in with evident though wary pleasure and is soon printing out densely packed pages, but her peaceful rhythm is shattered when John’s daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), shows up.

The husky-voiced Julie, her pneumatic figure always on display (Sagnier spends about as much time topless as not), is Sarah’s polar opposite, in the habit of bedding men she barely knows. Sarah is furious at the intrusion but fascinated by her uninvited housemate. At first she just spies on and spars with Julie, but then their relationship changes—and so do they.

Sagnier, who appeared in two of Ozon’s other movies (she played the tomboyish daughter in Eight Women), has been acting since she was 10, but this is her sexual coming out, and it’s a memorable debut. Part luscious seductress and part love-starved waif, she comes off as “a Mediterranean Marilyn Monroe,” as Ozon puts it.

Watching the two women circle each other and listening to the background music that keeps getting louder and lasting longer, you’re so sure something creepy is about to happen that it’s almost anticlimactic when Sarah finds a dead body. But everything is not what it seems in this neatly constructed puzzle, and a surprise ending will have you rethinking everything as the lights go up. What “really” happened? What was just part of Sarah’s novel? Is there any difference between the two?

Aside from a few eerie touches, like the cross that keeps reappearing on Sarah’s bedroom wall and a haunted-looking midget she encounters, the clues Ozon scatters through his mystery are so subtle they may not even register until later, though the saturated colors and prowling camera make even mundane details like a red raft or a strong morning wind feel mysteriously meaningful.

The director says he was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk, and it’s easy to spot similarities. Like Sirk, he’s a “woman’s director,” with a gift for portraying the strengths and struggles of female protagonists. And like both Hitchcock and Sirk, he’s a natural filmmaker, cranking out visually and emotionally engaging movies as if there were nothing to it. At 36, he has already completed more than a dozen short films and seven features, many of which combine Sirk’s tormented women and saturated colors with Hitchcock’s ominous undertones.

But Ozon isn’t interested in simply recreating or spoofing the feel of midcentury cinema, in the manner of Far From Heaven or Down with Love. He’s created a style all his own, which includes more brutal violence and far more explicit, often gay sex than his role models would (or could) put on the screen. And while Hitchcock specialized in ice queens and Sirk in extravagantly tortured souls, Ozon’s women feel exquisitely real, emotionally and intellectually complex but no larger--or smaller--than life.

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