Francois Ozon’s 2000 film, Under the Sand, was a thoughtful and deeply affecting film which led to high hopes for subsequent Ozon entries. His next star-studded outing, which combined a rather fatuous mystery story with retro-musical numbers only slightly less painful than listening to chalk screech on a blackboard, won high praise from many critics nonetheless. The same seems to be the fate of Swimming Pool, which amply demonstrates Ozon’s genuine accomplishment as a director, while suggesting that maybe he should get out of the screenwriting business.
Swimming Pool stars the ever-luminous Charlotte Rampling (who also starred in Under the Sand)as Sarah Morton, a burned out mystery writerwhose publisher offers her his country house in the south of France for a change of scenery. Morton’s character is skillfully drawn by Ozon and Rampling. She’s conservative, organized, uptight and somewhat spoiled by her success. She lives with an aging father and she has a drinking problem, the latter neatly disclosed with a short scene of her ordering a whiskey in a pub in the morning.
The country house is idyllic–provincial luxury in a woodsy setting, but even as Morton starts to relax, her publisher’s daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) appears unannounced, planning to stay for a while. There’s a yin and yang contrast between the two women. Julie’s a slob, leaving a mess behind her in the kitchen; she is uninhibited about her youthful (quite ideal) body; she brings back a different guy each night for casual sex.
The chemistry between Morton and Julie is chillingly icy as might be expected under the circumstances. But then Mortonappears to have a change of heart and reaches out in a friendly way toward the girl. What quickly becomes clear is that the girl has become grist for the writer’s mill and Morton’s laptop hums with productivity. Up to this point, script, direction, and acting have worked in synch to effectively establish character as well as to create a subtle, but undefined, sense of foreboding. There’s also some play on Julie as Morton’s alter ego, possessed of the freedom, the spontaneity, and the sensuality which Morton has locked up inside her proper British persona.
But, as events (not to be revealed here) unfold, Morton’s behavior becomes implausible, out of character, and unclearly motivated. What had been character-driven drama becomes plot-driven and gimmicky, undermining all of the promise of the first half of the film. Then Ozon tops it off with a twist at the end which throws the entire proceedings into a still different light, but he hasn’t earned the twist–the details don’t hold up to logic and it adds no insight to what has come before. It’s a smirky sort of cop-out and it leaves an unpleasant sense of being cheated.
In the oh-so-post-modern way, Ozon seems bent on exploring (and displaying his knowledge) of various genres from the cinematic lexicon. (Ang Lee is doing the same thing.) There’s nothingwrong with that per se, but maybe he’d do better sticking to what he does best.