Swimming Pool

(2003) *** 1/2 R
102 min. . Director: Francois Ozon. Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Marc Fayolle, Jean-Francois Lamour (II).

French filmmaker François Ozon takes pages from Hitchcock, Lynch, and fellow countryman Chabrol in Swimming Pool, one of the few buzzed-about films of this year's Cannes film festival. An ode to inspiration, Swimming Pool is a mystery which works on more than one level, plumbing psychological depths, evoking emotional states, and investigating intellectual themes. What is the relationship between fiction and reality? What is the nature of identity and, if it can change, how?

Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling, who made such a splash three years ago in Ozon's Under the Sand, plays Sarah Morton, a sharply-drawn variation on prim English mystery authors like Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. One character notes disdainfully that Morton "writes about dirty things but never does them." Morton is sour, insecure, and impossible to please.

At the behest of her editor/lover (Charles Dance), the tightly wound author vacations at his summer home in France. Ozon quietly underlines Morton's nihilistic resignation when she arrives in France and takes down the cross from over the bed. Nevertheless, her reluctant vacation refreshes her. Before long, she is tapping out pages of a new novel—or two. The arrival of the editor's brash daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) complicates Morton's life and livelihood by questioning her aloofness, trumping her refresher with a rebirth.

Ozon's sense of humor is devilishly subtle, as is his approach to a story which might typically be told in an overtly "artsy" or sensationalistic manner. Ozon cultivates an ultimate ambiguity but also embeds meaning in each key action of the characters, with the titular swimming pool a fulcrum for change. Sarah and Julie are two sides of the same coin, narratively and cinematographically paralleled. Sagnier, so charming in Ozon's 8 Women, transforms herself here into an amoral sex kitten, who also has lessons to learn. Her transformation, and Rampling's delicious development from sour to spicy, make for a potent and, at times, amusing drama. Meanwhile, Ozon—full of surprises—takes a high dive into the deep end, coming up with a sexy thriller that's also a sparkling work of art.

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