“We have to carry on with our lives as if nothing happened,” says Sarah in the deceptive and erotic thriller “Swimming Pool” (2003) directed by France’s François Ozon. The film stars one of the most alluring actors in cinema, Charlotte Rampling. You’ve seen her face before. She has hooded eyelids that hang over her powerful green eyes. There’s a Cheshire Cat quality to her that makes her profoundly enigmatic. Throughout her career, she has played difficult and complicated roles. In the provocative and controversial “The Night Porter” (1974), she plays a concentration camp survivor who dances topless for her Nazi officer, and she’s the alcoholic that Paul Newman unwisely gets involved with in “The Verdict” (1982). Her subtle and emotional portrait of a woman who discovers that her husband of four decades might still long for his first love in “45 Years” earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in 2014. In the 2000s, she’s become an inspiration to Ozon working with him in “Under The Sand” (2000), “Swimming Pool,” and “Angel” (2007). The latter fact is worth knowing because of the ideas at the heart of “Swimming Pool” – the blurred lines between reality and fiction and the role of a muse.
Those eyes of successful middle-age mystery writer Sarah Morton seem to be concealing secrets and motivations of her own. In a dreary and grey London, she’s dealing with writer’s block. In the underground, she runs into one of her fans who recognizes her. “I’m not the person you think I am,” says Sarah – heavy with meaning. Her publisher suggests she use his villa near Lacoste in France, and she takes him up on the offer. The place is just what she needs – and she settles in the upstairs bedroom with a balcony overlooking the inviting swimming pool. Her idyllic reverie is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Julie (a spellbinding Ludivine Sagnier ) – the publisher’s young, predatory and promiscuous daughter. Sarah at first disapproves of her – her messy indulgent eating habits, her parading around topless – and her bringing a different man home every night. “You’re just a frustrated English woman who writes about dirty things but never does them,” she tells Sarah. Shortly, Sarah starts a voyeuristic curiosity for the much younger disruptor. Is she jealous? Is she attracted to her? It becomes a pas de deux that flirts with menace and consequences.
Just like the direction, I should withhold as much information as possible about the many delights that await the viewer. I should point out that there are Hitchcockian undertones. “When someone keeps an entire part of their life secret from you, it’s fascinating and frightening,” says Sarah. The pool has a tarp over it when Sarah first reaches the villa. At a point in the film, the tarp will be removed halfway – blackness covering half of it. Sarah will be on the balcony observing as Julie swims out of the covered section into the sunny and turquoise part of the pool. That visual is very symbolic of the proceedings. There’s always something being left unsaid. The night that Julie appears, Sarah has gotten ready for bed on a very hot evening. She gets out of bed to open the window. Pay close attention to that moment. Sarah stares into the darkness and fans herself – and returns to her bed. The camera will gently pull in – still focusing into the void – we will hear Julie’s car approach and then the camera will pull back. When they eventually share the screen, attention should be given to the way they’re placed, and one of them may be out of focus. There’s another telling and fantastic shot later in the proceedings when Sarah is behind the typewriter, and the camera will pan away to the left and focus on the mirror next to her. Inside the mirror there’s a reflection of another mirror that has an infinite reflection of her.
There’s female nudity in this film – and it’s used as a form of seduction and diversion. Not to be outdone by a 20-year-old, in the most shocking and alluring sequence, the sixty-year-old at the time is insouciantly au naturel. The two characters’ relationship remind me of Clouzot’s classic “Les Diaboliques.”
Warning, you’re going to want to see this film again after it ends.
Sarah: “I absolutely loathe swimming pools.”
Julie: “I prefer the sea, too. The ocean…the crashing waves, that feeling of danger that you could lose footing at any time and be swept away. Pools are boring. There’s no excitement, no feeling of infinity.”
Available to stream on Netflix and to rent on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW, VUDU, Microsoft, Redbox, iTunes and DIRECTV.
Written by François Ozon and Emmanuèle Bernheim
Directed by François Ozon
Starring Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Marc Fayolle and Jean-Marie Lamour
Bringing “Swimming Pool” to the Screen
Ozon’s desire to make a smaller scale drama was the result of his stressful experience shooting “8 Women,” with its galaxy of celebrated — and temperamental — French actresses (among them Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart)…”There were a lot of egos involved,” Ozon said diplomatically… “After ‘8 Women,’ I wanted to do something more intimate, more personal, and to find myself among family again. Charlotte and Ludivine are very dear friends of mine. I’ve worked with both of them before, and I wrote these roles with them in mind.”…”The French press can be very aggressive and jealous,” he said, trying to explain his apprehensiveness about how “Swimming Pool” would be received in France post-“8 Women.” (“Swimming Pool” got varied notices but opened at No. 2 at the box office.) “In France, people resent other people’s success, and they have this idea that the artist must suffer to create.” He laughed. “It irritates people that I give the impression of being happy.”
In fact, questions about his inner life were partly responsible for the theme of “Swimming Pool.” “I was tired of journalists always asking me, ‘Where does your inspiration come from?’ ” he said. “I wanted to tell of my way of working and my process of creation. I had the idea of telling this through the character of an English writer, where I could talk about something very intimate, while still hiding myself.” He conceived of Sarah Morton (Rampling) as a writer of thrillers in the vein of Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell, women who have always fascinated him because, as he said, “they often look so different from what they write.” It amused him to set up a cultural opposition between a buttoned-down Brit and a French sex kitten. “I wanted to start with two cliches and then find out what really lies behind the masks.” (washingtonpost.com)
Writer and Director François Ozon on “Swimming Pool”
“I wanted to do a self-portrait,” explains Ozon, “and I thought it would be simpler if I projected myself into the character of a British female mystery writer. That’s so far from me that it made it easier to be lucid and humorous about myself. Sarah is like my double. She gets jealous when her publisher shows affection towards another writer, and if I am a bit unhappy it’s easy for me to feel like that about, say, my producers. Also, she’s very successful but she doesn’t care – she just wants love and tenderness like anyone else.” The scene in which Sarah snaps at a fan who recognises her on the Underground – “I am not the person you think I am,” she fumes – was also lifted from life. “That happened to me after my first film was released,” he shudders. “I didn’t like the experience at all. I was on the Metro early in the morning, not quite awake, and someone said, ‘You are François Ozon!’ The train was full, everyone looked round. I said, ‘No, it’s not me,’ and got off. It felt horrible.”…”but there are lots of references here to my other work. My film ‘8 Women’ was about actresses and about other films. I was always there for the actresses, because it was a film about their glory. I had to forget myself. After I had finished it, I needed to come back to me.””…Each film, whether it’s Victor or Swimming Pool, has been a kind of therapy for me.” (independent.co.uk)
Charlotte Rampling on the Role of Sarah
During an interview at Cannes, Rampling called her close collaboration with Ozon an “osmosis.” The 57-year-old actress owes her career’s renaissance in great part to Ozon’s acclaimed 2001 film “Under the Sand,” in which she played a woman coming to terms with personal tragedy. “Each time I’ve worked with Francois we’ve started out with only an idea of the film,” the actress explained, her gray eyes hooded by sunglasses against the sunlit glare. “And then he goes off and writes, and I see him very regularly while he’s writing. We don’t even have to talk much about the role, but he tailors it to me like haute couture.” The alluring look of “Swimming Pool” — all sunlight, dappled water and tanned flesh — is meant to reflect, according to Ozon, the openness and sensuality of the process of writing. And yet the link between Sarah Morton and her muse goes beyond physical attraction. “When Charlotte looks at Ludivine, I want us to ask, ‘Does she desire her? Is she jealous? Or is she maternal?’ ” Ozon said. To play Julie, Sagnier went through a physical transformation, putting on blond hair extensions and losing 20 pounds. “My love of acting has always come from my pleasure in disguising myself,” the pixieish actress said. At 23, she has already worked three times with Ozon and is a veteran of his directing technique. “On set, Francois establishes the visual parameters of a scene rather than discussing psychological motivation,” she explained. “Instead of suggesting emotions, he wants to capture the emotions that emanate from us.” In all of his films, Ozon has shown a particular affinity for women. “I’m more interested in filming them,” he acknowledged. “I think female characters are often more complex. But I think it’s also easier because there is a distance.” He laughed. “I would have a lot of trouble doing a film on a 35-year-old French director.” (washingtonpost.com)
About Writer and Director François Ozon
Born in Paris, François Ozon studied direction at the Université de Paris, where he obtained his Masters degree, and then at the French national film school La Fémis under Eric Rohmer and Cahiers du Cinéma critic Jean Douchet. By 1996, Ozon had made 15 short films, experimenting with various filmmaking media including Super-8, video, 16mm and 35mm. His 1996 short “Une Robe d’Été” (“A Summer Dress”) was awarded a “Leopard of Tomorrow” at Locarno, and announced some of the defining traits of his work: a fascination with isolation, a willingness to address the spectrum of human sexuality, and a raucous sense of satire. Ozon made his feature debut with “Sitcom” (1998), a family melodrama spoof and coming-out story which gained extensive play on the international festival circuit. Two years later, “Water Drops on Burning Rocks,” an adaptation of a play by Rainer Werner Fassbinder—a filmmaker whose huge body of work defied his age, and whose interest in the fluidity of gender and sexuality Ozon echoes—premiered in Competition at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Teddy for Best Gay & Lesbian Feature Film. In the same year, Ozon released a poignant meditation on loss, “Under the Sand”—his first outing with actress Charlotte Rampling—which epitomized his versatility in genre and style. Perhaps Ozon’s most successful film to date is “8 Femmes” (2002), a musical/ mystery with its heritage firmly in the melodramas of Douglas Sirk. “8 Femmes” stars a veritable roll call of the grandes dames of French cinema, including Danielle Darrieux, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardent, Isabelle Huppert, and Emmanuelle Béart, among others—who were all awarded the Silver Bear for Best Actress at Berlin. Reuniting with Rampling, the thriller “Swimming Pool” (2003) premiered In Competition at Cannes and was a hit with critics worldwide. The more sombre “5×2” (2004) and “Time to Leave” (2005) both touched on isolation through the ending of relationships; thereafter Ozon moved to purely the English-language features “Angel” (2007) and “Ricky” (2009), but continues to work in French also. Incredibly prolific, Ozon has released, on average, one film a year since 1988. He continues to play with genre, content and style from film to film, but continuously attempts to challenge the rules of conventional cinema. (madman.co.nz) A few of Ozon’s other films include “Hideaway” (2009), “Potiche” (2010), “In the House” (2012), “Young & Beautiful” (2013), “The New Girlfriend” (2014), “Frantz” (2016), “Double Lover” (2017), “By the Grace of God” (2018) and most recently “Summer of 85” in 2020.