In François Ozon’s films—no less than in, say, Virginia Woolf or Tsai Ming-liang—water is a symbol of the ungovernable, signifying undammed ids and perilous surrender. The prolific French director’s seductive, frustrating new movie, which opens with a shot of the chilly Thames, is instructively titled Swimming Pool. Following the undulating terror of See the Sea and the oceanic grief of Under the Sand, here instead is a film about artifice and containment, with the placidly mysterious veneer of a Polanski mindfuck. But where’s the knife in the water? As Charlotte Rampling’s blocked mystery-writer protagonist blurs reality and fantasy, the psychological intrigue evaporates and this meditation on bad-faith art becomes an example of same.
Ozon’s establishing scenes have a masterful economy. Just as he articulated the complacent coziness of a middle-aged marriage in a few quick, wordless scenes in Under the Sand, he wastes no time here reinventing Rampling, that movie’s luminous star, as priggish English novelist Sarah Morton. One of her first lines, spoken as she brushes off an admirer she finds too old for comfort: “I’m not the person you think I am.”
And so begins a prismatic game of reflection and refraction. Sarah’s patronizing editor (Charles Dance) packs his irritable charge off to his Provençal château. The summer house is one of Ozon’s favorite settings—a perfect laboratory for reinvention, where the subject, sundered from everyday routine, is particularly receptive, or vulnerable, to foreign stimuli. Sure enough, Sarah has barely settled in when the editor’s nymphet daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), blows in unannounced. In contrast to Sarah, whose wardrobe consists of drab floral blouses, knitted vests, and frumpy sun hats, Julie wears as little as possible at all times. Much to her easily distracted housemate’s annoyance, the girl also engages in a morning routine of poolside stretching and skinny-dipping as well as nightly bouts of loud, vigorous sex with strangers.
The ominous score and precise, lingering frames tell you otherwise, but Swimming Pool is less a thriller than a comedy, and a formulaic one at that, predicated on an amusing but bizarrely simplistic clash of personalities and cultures: the veddy English old maid and the ooh-la-la French slut. Ozon’s films are on some level comedies of sexual repression and liberation—some more sophisticated (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Criminal Lovers) than others (Sitcom, 8 Women). Swimming Pool treads water somewhere in between, capturing every nuance of a wholly predictable transformation by osmosis. Not only is Sarah’s curiosity piqued by Julie, her creativity is sparked and her appetite whetted. Trust Ozon to ensure that Sarah’s cravings manifest orally: This self-punitive “Miz Marpelle,” as Julie calls her, at first subsists on artificially sweetened yogurt, but in no time is staging Nigella-style late-night fridge raids for cheese and foie gras.
Swimming Pool is primarily a range-expanding showcase for the superb Rampling, who has as much fun with Sarah’s squinty, purse-lipped shrewishness as with her bumbling but eventually triumphant sexualization. Ozon says he had a specific type in mind—the hard-boiled English dame of mystery (Christie, Rendell, Highsmith, Cornwell, et al.)—and in the press notes reveals that he even did some research: “A number of them drink too much, have repressed lesbian tendencies, and are fascinated by perversions.” But Ozon’s sexual flowcharts are never straightforward: No sapphic urges materialize, and the women’s competitive erotic energies instead find release in the absurd form of a mustachioed waiter (Marc Fayolle), who in passing informs Sarah that he’s from Lacoste, site of the Marquis de Sade’s castle.
Tension arises from the suggestion that the movie is threatening to turn into a murder mystery—in other words, that Sarah is poised to take over as author of the narrative. As in Under the Sand, Rampling’s character doesn’t deign to distinguish between real and imagined—a widow hallucinating her way through mourning in the earlier film, and here, a novelist fantasizing an escape from writer’s block. While this purported emphasis on the creative process means that Swimming Pool exists in a pleasant state of vaporous uncertainty, it makes for a curious, even disingenuous premise, since Ozon goes out of his way to stress Sarah’s lack of imagination, or at least her vampiric opportunism—her main inspiration is to crib from Julie’s journal. (Chances are, the director doesn’t think much of his heroine’s work—the latest installment in her successful “Inspector Dorwell” series, we learn, was the Scotland-set Dorwell Wears a Kilt.) So are we to blame Sarah’s one-track mind for the plot’s more banal turns? Ozon’s co-writer, Emanuèle Bernheim, also co-scripted Claire Denis’s Friday Night, which likewise entertains the notion that it is mainly a sustained reverie. But while Denis’s film concludes on an equivocal grace note, the ending of Swimming Pool—oddly unambiguous about the preceding ambiguity—is merely redundant.
That said, the movie has some of the unblushing sexual candor of Ozon’s early shorts (still among his best work). Much of the action unfolds in and around the titular receptacle, which undergoes as dramatic a metamorphosis as Sarah (tarp-covered, leaf-strewn, crystalline). Even more than in the superficially related precursor, Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine (with Rampling contemporary Jane Birkin in the temptress role), the poolside scenes have a lazy, horny, sunstroked quality—the camera is often practically in heat (in a recurring motif, it pans along every inch of a pair of wet bodies, one looking down on the other). The pool has, of course, long been a source of iconic cinematic imagery (from Sunset Boulevard to The Swimmer to Showgirls). With its limpid waters and capacity for optical illusion, it may be an overly apt central metaphor in this case: Did Ozon really intend to make a movie this transparent? Swimming Pool is as lulling as a dead man’s float, but you come up for air realizing there’s no deep end.
More literally lesbionic, Monica Stambrini’s Gasoline is a no-fuss Italian addition to the killer-dyke subgenre. Our not so heavenly creatures this time are mousy waitress Lenni (Regina Orioli) and tough mechanic Stella (Maya Sansa). Lenni’s overbearing mother stops in at the gas station where the couple work and is accidentally offed when Stella intervenes mid-harangue. The girls take a battered Volvo on the lam, confronting homophobic meatheads and the usual body-disposal woes. Most distressing to poor Lenni, Mamma refuses to shut up, continuing to play nagging superego even in death. Devoid of originality, Gasoline is at least a model of modesty—a road movie that goes nowhere slowly, and ends up where it began.