Summertime, and the living is kinky.
A few ingredients include: a secluded villa in the south of France (with plenty of quiet in the off-season), a snippy Brit with a self-generating storm cloud over her head, a kittenish French teenager who annoys the Brit with her aura of sexual recklessness and disregard for clothing. Add a strange lump under a pool tarp that needs revealing.
Simmer and bring to a slow burn: You have the teasing allure of Swimming Pool, the much-hyped thriller from French filmmaker Francois Ozon (working in English for the first time). And it is something else, quite literally: it begins as a study of an emotionally constipated novelist and ends as something more sinister, if less intriguing: an erotic hothouse of murder and manipulation that's oblique, insubstantial.
But like a smart beach read that doles out a mystery in tantalizing clues, you can't shake off its gravitational pull.
For those moviegoers who still, years later, have not given up their attempt to piece together and make linear sense of the identity-swapping, head-spinning enigma of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, here is psychological noir a shade more solvable - if a bit on the shallow end.
Before it's over we get a cryptic dwarf (always good for a chill). We get hints at mysteries within mysteries. We get a murder that might have happened. And an 11th-hour revelation that forces you to replay the details in your head; you walk out of the theater muttering and half understanding, and not all that interested in Ozon's eye-rolling solution.
The director has that in common with Alfred Hitchcock. Their endpoints are rarely as interesting as the casual ease and skill, or the sniff of menace, that leads us there, and you never know quite where Swimming Pool is headed.
Charlotte Rampling plays that British novelist, the kind of woman you imagine on the other end of the phone when you call the Department of Motor Vehicles. Her Sarah Morton, like many Rampling characters, is brittle, intimidating, starchy; here she adds exploitative and devious. But Ozon and Rampling endlessly sprinkle the character with pathos; when her mouth cracks the tiniest hint of contentment, it's a relief.
Our first glimpse of her is on a train. She's avoiding eye contact with an admirer. A detective novelist with an aging fan base, she wears a belted tan raincoat and a mouth set perfectly horizontal. She has about her a strong whiff of desperation. Unable to come up with anything new, she is sent by her editor to his French home to decompress.
This languorous setup is gorgeous and evocative; Ozon gets us relaxed. Sarah unpacks, kneels, plugs in a laptop. Sarah goes to the market, sits in a caf . Her granite composure softens. Her head against a wall, she closes her eyes and you feel the warm sun. Sarah gets up, tries some writing, paces, sits down, walks down to the swimming pool. She peels back a corner of the tarp, and ...
Swirling beneath are leaves and dirt. A metaphor for mess and muck in paradise, it's soon given flesh. In Under the Sand, Rampling and Ozon's previous collaboration, which was equally compelling and frustrating, a husband drowns and Rampling's character simply will not accept it. A similar thing happens here: Sarah's brink of inspiration, her relaxation, her contentment, is disrupted by her editor's ratty-haired nymphet daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier). He muttered something about her, and now Sarah sees why.
Just as Sarah is the epitome of British uptightness, Julie is the British image of French hedonism: smoking, drinking, lounging around topless, having loud sex with a new, gnomic partner every night.
Their differences are overdrawn nearly to the point of parody. But Ozon builds his tension quietly, and in measures. The women circle each other. “Your problem is you're just a bitter woman who writes about doing bad things but never does them herself,” Julie cries, and of course she's right. But we don't trust her. To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, her life is one long emergency. We don't trust Sarah, either. She peeks at Julie's diary, then cribs from entire pages. Her writer's block is miraculously cured - and you feel something bad will happen.
Swimming Pool is good about never letting on whether Sarah is lonely and looking for a friend, or intrinsically manipulative and always out for fodder for her novels.
Julie has her secrets, too. Sagnier single-handedly brings the voluptuous French tart back into vogue - while simultaneously removing the glamour. At dinner she tells Rampling's Sarah about her life, about her complicated, rich, spoiled messes, and you see recognition wash into the writer's face - and I'll stop now.
To say more would be punishable by vacation with Sarah.