Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 12, 2003 1:26 pm 
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Beautiful cheat

François Ozon's Swimming Pool again uses the lovely, aging-beautifully, Sphinx-like Charlotte Rampling, as did his previous Sous le sable (Under the Sand), also cowritten with Emmanuèle Bernheim. There's something mysterious about Miss Rampling, but more than that, something self contained and pleased: she's like a beautiful human Cheshire cat. She walks through this movie looking comfortable and happy. -- even when she's being initially very annoyed with her English publisher's half-English daughter, who turns up when Charlotte (known here as Sara Morton, an English mystery writer who's run a bit dry) is taking a working vacation in the south of France.

The relationship that develops between Sara and Julie, this annoying daughter, becomes the crux of Swimming Pool.

Sara has become bored with London, where she lives, and there are hints that she's also becoming a bit bored with her publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance). When she last sees him, he's fussing over a new writer the way he used to fuss over her, and she quite plainly doesn't like it. Bosload has come to take the success of Sara's mystery novels for granted. But the conciliatory offer of a stay at his house in France dampens her annoyance, and she's quickly on her way. Once there, she moves about, getting accustomed to the place, buying groceries, finding a nice café for lunch, setting up her computer and printer, and soaking up the peace and quiet. She's rather hoping John Bosload will pay her the compliment of coming down; but he begs off. Despite this disappointment, she gets started on a new manuscript immediately and is working very well, when Julie appears.

It's a shock. The young woman comes at night unannounced -- like the idea for a story -- and Sara thinks she's a burglar and is poised to brain her with a lamp.

Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) is young, blonde, wild, and indifferent to Sara's need for peace and quiet to do her writing. Julie brings men to the house for sex, indulges in rich meals without cleaning up properly, and is a walking provocation. Clashes between the two women have begun to heat up when Sara has a change of mood and begins to open a file on the girl.

I don't for a minute think that Miss Rampling looks much like an English mystery writer. She's far too suave and glamorous. But she wears the writer's cool isolation, and she looks right in the bright, beautiful Mediterranean world that the movie provides as her backdrop. She embodies both the intellectual (through her inwardness) and the sensual (through her physical good looks). Julie has rougher edges and exudes a thinly concealed aura of raw neediness. Her promiscuity is dysfunctional and seems to result from parental neglect. She provokes Sara because she wants a response. Anything will do and she has been conditioned to expect the worst. When the writer takes a close, sympathetic interest in her misbehavior and her past, she is instantly flattered and a bond develops.

Finally, something awful happens and the relationship becomes conspiratorial. Later we learn that it's even more intimate than we could have imagined. The movie relies on final surprises, and on the extra jolt of violence experienced in a serene setting. Swimming Pool has a trick ending, followed by the coda of a couple more smaller twists. Were it not for these, it would look like a conventional, well made French mystery story with a posh bourgeois setting, a la Chabrol. It does look that, and it might work just as well if it were really conventional. But it is at once more self conscious, and thinner in the hard stuff of pulp fiction. The wicked, Highsmith-like turn that finishes off the somewhat meandering action (for a considerable while it's just atmosphere and setting, without a plot) is undercut by the self-conscious, post-modern finale. All the loose ends are tied up; but one is retroactively cheated out of the satisfactions the genre normally provides.

If Rampling were not present to make the whole movie a visual treat, it's doubtful that Ozon's plot tricks would be as well digested. It's that catlike look and those still lovely limbs that make it all work. The actress has a face and body so loved by the camera, and is so at home in front of it, that we allow expectation to envelop us as a long sequence of quite routine scenes slowly unrolls. Personally, I found that Ozon's earlier Les amants criminels (Criminal Lovers) had a sense of transgression that was more exciting than either this, or the previous Sous le sable.

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