Swimming Pool (France/United Kingdom, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Note: This review contains spoilers. Those who wish to have a completely "fresh" viewing experience of this movie should return after seeing it.

The concept of involving a female mystery writer in a crime is not a new plot device. In fact, from Dorothy Sayers' Harriet Vane to Angela Lansbury's J.B. Fletcher, such women have populated detective fiction from its early days. Likewise, there's nothing cinematically groundbreaking about the blurring of the lines between fact and fiction, and reality and fantasy. Over the years, countless movies have toyed with our perceptions, asking us to determine whether an event is happening in a character's mind or occurring in that person's environment. With Swimming Pool, director François Ozon's first English-language feature, the director has wed these two movie staples to arrive at something that, while not stunningly original, is fresh and compelling enough to hold the viewer's attention through its entire running length.

Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is a British "crime fiction writer" who seems to have been based, at least in part, on her real-life counterparts, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell. Burned out and fed up, she pays a visit to her publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance), in search of a little inspiration. John has just the thing for her - spend a few weeks at his country house in France. There, she will have the peace and quiet she needs to write a new novel. She accepts his offer, and, at first, the secluded place, with its wooded grounds and secluded swimming pool, are perfect. Enter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), John's rebellious, oversexed, teenage daughter, who intends to share the house with the older, more reserved woman. Sarah is not pleased, and her attempts to establish boundaries are continually flouted by Julie, who brings a new man home every night and keeps Sarah awake with the sounds of her lovemaking. Gradually, however, the relationship between the two softens, until a series of events cause a radical shift.

The tone of Swimming Pool is much like that of Ozon's Under the Sand (which also starred Rampling) - unhurried, deliberate, and subtly haunting. The director eschews the rat-a-tat editing techniques beloved by many of his contemporaries. Instead, he favors long, sustained shots and does not rely too much on close-ups. Swimming Pool is not a fast-paced motion picture, but it has a compelling quality that draws the viewer into its web and traps him or her there. Understanding, however, requires careful attention and constant vigilance. Even in retrospective, the seams between reality and fantasy are not clearly delineated, and it will probably demand a second viewing to complete Swimming Pool's puzzle. A casual, inattentive audience member will either be completely confused by the ending, or, even worse, might miss the twist altogether.

The clues in Swimming Pool require thought and interpretation to decipher. Ozon does not present the answers to his audience in small, easily digestible pieces. It took me about 20 minutes of post-screening introspection before I finally "got" everything. There are plenty of hints about what's going on within the movie, but those will mostly be missed or dismissed by even alert viewers. Only at the end does Ozon provide us with a tidbit of evidence that's impossible to ignore.

Both of the lead actresses have previously worked with Ozon. Rampling, who is wonderful here as the sour-tempered, frigid writer, was the rock-solid centerpiece of Under the Sand, another psychological mystery that tinkered with reality. On the other hand, Sagnier was in both Water Drops on Burning Rocks and 8 Women. Her performance is eye-opening - in more ways that one. The young actress spends much of the movie either half-naked or completely so. Aside from having a great body, however, she gives an impressive performance as a girl seeking refuge in promiscuity from personal demons.

Swimming Pool does some interesting things with the relationship between Sarah and Julie. At first, these two are obvious antagonists. But, in spite of her anger and irritation at the younger woman's presence, Sarah is also fascinated. Hints of a lesbian attraction are subtle, but unmistakable. And, as things develop and Sarah learns more about Julie, a curious kind of cross-pollination occurs. Julie develops a sense of reserve and Sarah becomes more liberated. The movie stops short of a complete role-reversal, but, before Swimming Pool comes to a close, Sarah has smoked pot and casually offered her body to a handyman and Julie has put on some clothes.

Swimming Pool is not as psychologically complex as Under the Sand or as disturbing as the film that first brought Ozon international acclaim, See the Sea. But, for those willing to invest a little effort and 100 minutes of their time, the film is involving enough to make it worthwhile. There are narrative weaknesses and unmet expectations surrounding the climax that the epilogue's revelations cannot entirely dispel, but on balance, the performances and tone are more than enough to earn Swimming Pool a solid recommendation. Take a dip - the water's fine.

Swimming Pool (France/United Kingdom, 2003)

Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: 2003-07-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1