A sophisticated, unpredictable mystery about an uptight crime writer whose creative energy is released by an encounter with her polar opposite, “Swimming Pool” occupies intelligent middle-ground between the sober profundity of Francois Ozon’s “Under the Sand” and the dark cruelty of “Regarde la Mer,” stirring a little of the playfulness of his other features into the mix. Working predominantly in English for the first time, the French director has crafted an absorbing tale about the merging of fiction with reality, propelled by contrasting performances from Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier. International distribs — including Focus Features in the U.S. — should do tidy arthouse business with adults eager to be plunged into the film’s cool intrigue.
A celebrated British mystery novelist with a series of bestsellers built around the same detective character, Sarah (Rampling) is a chilly, joyless woman. She complains to her publisher John (Charles Dance) of feeling frustrated in her work and jaded with writing about murders and investigations. Given that she appears quietly to carry a torch for the man, Sarah takes John’s distracted promise of a weekend visit as added incentive and accepts the offer to use his house in the South of France.
The film’s look switches with Sarah’s arrival from the muted, drab tones of London to the warm colors and light of Luberon, where the writer relaxes and promptly begins work. But her tranquility is broken by the intrusion of John’s French daughter Julie (Sagnier), who arrives unannounced. Lounging topless by the pool and bringing a string of men home for noisy late-night sex, Julie’s brash attitude and lack of inhibitions make Sarah bristle, creating a wall of hostility between the housemates.
But as Sarah begins observing the girl from behind windows and doors, her curiosity kicks in, unleashing sexual dreams and prompting her to explore Julie’s room and dip into her diary. Offering an olive branch, the writer suggests they start again over dinner, and, when they do, she begins probing Julie for details of her life.
As Sarah loosens up, Julie sheds some of her trashy insouciance and starts rifling through the novelist’s work. When Julie one night brings home Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour), a waiter in a local cafe with whom Sarah has exchanged a few words, the older woman feels flattered by his apparent attraction to her. But when she retires to bed and leaves the younger couple alone, events take a darker turn with a murder that may or may not be part of Sarah’s imagination.
While some audiences may feel frustrated by the ambiguities in the story’s final stretch and surprise denouement, Ozon and screenplay collaborator Emmanuele Bernheim (who also worked on “Under the Sand”) concoct a strange, seductive reflection on the creative process that by its very nature leaves certain elements open to interpretation.
The drama also functions as a study in opposites drawing from each other in odd ways. This exchange seems cleverly brewed in the waters — initially dirty and leaf-strewn, then pristine — of the villa’s swimming pool, which supplies the title.
Playing a woman unaccustomed to letting down her guard, Rampling is reserved and brittle for much of the action, gradually infusing her performance with warmth and sensuality. While the role doesn’t have the fascinating depths of her character in “Under the Sand,” and some of the English dialogue sounds stiff, the actress creates an interesting, difficult woman with an unexpected maternal side.
But it’s Sagnier who really gives the film its sexy edge, looking sensational in various stages of deshabille and bringing a smart prickliness to the character. Working with Ozon for the third time after “Water Drops on Burning Rocks” and “8 Women,” she subtly peels back the provocative, wild-girl recklessness to reveal traces of child-like vulnerability.
Continuing to negotiate radical shifts in style and tone from one project to the next, Ozon has made a controlled, classical film with a very deliberate pace after the campy theatricality of “8 Women.” Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s crisp lensing and Philippe Rombi’s elegant mystery score represent strong contributions.