Imagining a writer as a major character often affords a filmmaker the luxury of artifice, like a wilful blurring of the lines between truth and fiction. Such is the case with Francois Ozon’s tantalizing Swimming Pool, a slow-burning drama from 2003 with sinuous hints of a darker mystery that only resolve themselves in the perplexing conclusion.
Charlotte Rampling plays English crime fiction author Sarah Morton, disillusioned by her continuing series of Inspector Dorwell novels, despite their success. She’s desperate for fresh inspiration and tired of the special treatment she once received being foisted upon much younger upstarts by her publisher John Bosload (Charles Dance).
The two were apparently lovers at some point, a relationship Sarah would like to rekindle. John, however, only wants to offload her and suggests his scenic and peaceful French retreat, a remote house nestled away near a small village in the South.
Sarah settles in and begins to write, her creative energy – stifled by her inner turmoil of late – soon returning with a rush. The environment seems like the perfect antidote………….…..until the unexpected arrival of John’s estranged daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a provocative, carefree party girl and whirlwind of loud noise who likes to parade around semi-naked, bringing different male companions to the house every night.
The two women, with their vastly different personalities, are soon at loggerheads though both are determined to compromise – or at least to not give an inch, and so an implicit understanding of sorts is reached. It’d be cruel to reveal much more of the plot as the third act builds momentum and changes direction a number of times; it’s definitely a film which relies on as little in the way of revelations as possible for maximum impact.
Ozon uses music sparingly, his composer Philippe Rombi foreshadowing the darker plot developments with his bleak and ominous theme as early as the opening titles; it raises an expectation of murkier turns to follow but Ozon drags the drama out, teasing with his absorbing set-up and follow-through. His deliberately languid pace adds another dimension of anticipation whilst not a lot is really happening other than the two women jostling for supremacy, trying to find common ground on which they can exist in something close to harmony.
There’s sublime skill in the way Ozon reveals details about these women, like the eccentric, almost childishly guilty cravings of Sarah’s hunger, and the way she steals from her reluctant young companion to secrete the machinations of her latest narrative. These details begin to take shape as clues to Julie’s life, some of which are attached to the personal demons of her mysterious mother’s life and, possibly, death.
We never question what might not be real, only because Ozon’s world is so convincing created, but as the surprising climax nears, there’s a sense he’s readying his audience for a fall, the rug about to be pulled out from underneath our feet. It’s here, at the most crucial moments, that the lines separating fact and fiction are blurred by clues disguised as authentic details – clues that may require a second viewing to convince us that they even existed at all.
Rampling and Sagnier are a perfectly matched duo, both giving uninhibited and provocative performances, whilst Ozon – who had first directed both women in Under the Sand (2000) and Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000) respectively – provides another fascinating film to his expanding, impressive body of work. Refined, subtle and, ultimately, complex and confounding, Swimming Pool can be viewed as exotic manipulation or cheap entertainment – or a masterful combination of both. Either way, you won’t be bored.