It's possible to have a soft spot for the director François Ozon without being satisfied by his films—among them the much-hyped Swimming Pool (Focus Features), a titillating two-woman chamber drama with a few extra gallons of water on the brain. I don't know if Ozon is gay or straight, but in his work he comes off as an exquisitely sensitive movie queen with a talent for projecting himself into the heads of aging actresses. In Under the Sand (2000), the story of a woman whose husband one day vanishes in the waves, Ozon caught the beauteous but starchy Charlotte Rampling at an uncanny instant: in midtransition from middle to old age, so that in some shots she had her former porcelain luster and in others a hint of mummyness. Never an especially open actress, Rampling was suddenly translucent—and riveting. But Ozon kept hitting the same emotional beats, and the narrative went nowhere surprising: The woman's delusions had no grandeur. In Swimming Pool, there are two major characters and what's meant to be a mind-bending climactic twist, but the last act fizzles in exactly the same way. Ozon devises tantalizing scenarios and immerses himself completely—then seems happy to tread water.
In Swimming Pool, Rampling is back, this time as Sarah Morton, the author of a long-running series of detective novels and a woman whose prickly independence recalls Ruth Rendell and the late Patricia Highsmith. "Prickly independence" is a euphemism: She's a brittle bitch. But Rampling gives her bitchiness an air of quiet desperation. Sarah wants to break out of the mysteries-for-old-ladies genre and write a different, more original work. When she can't get anything going, her editor, John Bosload—played with just the right distanced intimacy by Charles Dance—suggests a stay in his empty villa in Provence, which comes complete with the eponymous pool. Sarah, whose life in rainy London consists of writing and caring for her elderly father, agrees with uncharacteristic alacrity.
The first section of the movie is a gorgeous reverie: It's Rampling's Sarah taking in the French countryside, feeling the sun on her face and listening to the wind as it rustles the leaves. She gets down on her knees to plug in her computer and printer beside an unfamiliar little desk. She shops for food—and hesitates over the wine, finally passing it by for Diet Coke. She stares hard at the rugged French waiter (Jean-Marie Lamour) at the local cafe as he rests, eyes closed, against a doorway. Sarah is in a state of creative ferment. She's lonely and probably libidinous, but Ozon keeps it pointedly unclear whether she craves human company or human fodder—something that will prime her for her new book. Then she lifts the tarp on the backyard swimming pool to reveal the dark water and dead leaves, and Philippe Rombi's good score issues its first mysterious plinks.
And then the drama proper starts, with the unheralded late-night arrival of Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), Sarah's publisher's semi-estranged French daughter. Sarah hadn't known about Julie—but then, no one had. And Julie has kept it that way. She is vague about her past, her future, and the whereabouts of her mother. She hints that her prim father has a secret life. She appalls Sarah with her mess, her intrusive questions, her provocative wardrobe (short skirts and tight tank tops—or no tops at all), and her habit of bringing home a different unattractive man every night and having noisy sex. Julie relishes the swimming pool that Sarah regards as a repository of bacteria. But slowly, very slowly, Sarah begins to take an interest in the young woman's inner life—to fantasize about her, finger her undergarments, even transcribe bits of her pilfered diary in the hope of integrating it into her novel. Sarah is even moved to venture into those now-shimmering blue waters. …
A young actress who appeared in Ozon's Fassbinder adaptation Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000) and his excruciating, high-camp murder-mystery musical Eight Women (2002), Sagnier has a good, throaty voice and an air of sexual recklessness: She's defiantly nubile but with an air of little-girl helplessness. A colleague recently said of the film, "Ludivine Sagnier is naked for almost the whole thing: How bad can it be?"—and that is a major selling point. (Someone thinks this is a very commercial movie: I've gotten more promotional material for Swimming Pool—including swim goggles, earplugs, and a pair of sandals—than for any "art" film in memory.)
The waters are alluring (especially in this 90-degree heat), but they don't run very deep. There's a killing that's not much of a shock. There's a trip to the nearby castle of the Marquis de Sade in Lacoste—which promises kinky plot developments that never come. There's a cryptic dwarf, which is generally an act of narrative desperation. Soon the camera is poring over Rampling's flesh the way it once did over Sagnier's: Are the two exchanging roles, as in some third-rate Harold Pinter imitation? The climax is a shrug, the denouement overly pleased with itself, the revelations—such as they are—coy. The ending is suggestive because spelling it all out would have left the audience members rolling their eyes instead of muttering in semi-comprehension. Swimming Pool seduces and annoys.