An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Swimming Pool (2003)
PUBLISHED: 17:29 26 January 2018
Films with re-watch value, movies with a unique quality, will become the classics of the future. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies that may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Swimming Pool; dir: François Ozon; starring: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Marc Fayolle, Jean-Marie Lamou. Cert: 15 (2003)
One of Hitchcock’s great enduring themes in his work was the notion of having a everyday figure as the hero, someone who at the start of the film is just going about his business, living his life, and through no fault of his own finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue and completely lost.
Cult French film-maker François latches onto this formula for his revealing contemporary thriller Swimming Pool which finds crime novelist Sarah Morton (Rampling) trying to cure her writer’s block by staying a rural French villa owned by her publisher (Dance) and getting entangled in the life of his wild-child French daughter Julie (Sagnier).
Ozon had worked with both actresses both Rampling in Under the Sand and Sagnier in the musical who-dunnit 8 Women and the spellbinding drama Water Drops on Burning Rocks but together they present a dynamic pairing. They are mesmerising on screen and make for a compelling duo who find themselves caught up in this claustrophobic tale of death and duplicity.
Sarah Morton (Rampling) is a best-selling British author in the tradition of female crime novelists like Ruth Rendell and PD James, however, she has become trapped by her success. Her Inspector Dorwell books have made her a reluctant celebrity.
Stressed about writing yet another detective novel, Sarah accepts her editor’s offer to use his holiday home in Provence, she looks forward to a quiet summer of work and rest. But her desire for orderly solitude are shattered by the unexpected arrival of Julie, her publisher’s promiscuous daughter.
Sarah makes it clear that she believes her privacy has been violated. However, it is more than that, it is her modest sense of decorum which has been outraged. Julie, full of youthful self-confidence, clearly enjoys her sexuality and regularly appears topless at the villa’s swimming pool and brings home men to sleep with.
Sarah tries to show her displeasure but, thanks to Rampling’s subtle performance, we also see she is surprised, intrigued and curious about this wanton child. She looks down from high windows, spying on the girl who appears to be completely indifferent to her.
The minimalist script throws the whole weight of the film onto the shoulders on these two formidable actors at opposite ends of their careers. Rampling really delves under the skin of this lonely, set-in-her-ways woman while Sagnier’s precocious teenager is both emotionally naïve and yet has street smarts far beyond her years.
At first the film appears to be a psychological melodrama, putting the audience centre-stage in a childish game of tit for tat, as the two women annoy one another and fail to get along, revealing little details about their characters in every scene, with Ozon giving finely tuned direction that allows us, the audience, to start putting the pieces together.
Then half way through the film, there is a huge gear change and the petty squabbling is replaced with something much darker and Sarah finds herself in the middle of one of her own murder mystery tales.
This is pure Hitchcock, the heroine suddenly finding themselves embroiled in a deadly adventure not of their making. The only way the pair can survive is bury the hatchet and work together, but, is this possible?
Although, Swimming Pool is very much an actors movie, Ozon gives the film a wonderful sense of atmosphere in this sensual, sun-drenched paradise. The editing and pacing is the work of a master craftsman. As an audience you are kept on the edge of your seat throughout, unable to tear yourself away in case you miss something important.
This is not a film of car chases or fist fights. There are no shoot-outs with international terrorists. This is a film of suspense, a film which plays with your expectations and emotions. It’s a film that seduces you and makes you a willing participant in a beguiling mystery.
Ozon throws in a red herring here and there just to keep us on our toes and the sight of Sarah stealing pages of Julie’s revealing diary to reanimate her writing makes you realise just how much the lives of these two women are intertwined.
Swimming Pool remains in the memory long after the movie is over and has fantastic re-watch value. You can’t say that about many thrillers once you know who-dunnit.