Swimming Pool (France-UK 2003)

Julie and Sarah share a whisky and a joint

Swimming Pool is an intriguing film which on release in 2003 attracted a lot of attention. It’s now streaming on MUBI in the UK. It proved to be the second of three collaborations between director François Ozon and star actor Charlotte Rampling. It was early in the features career of Ozon who made his reputation first in short films and who has gone on to become a highly prolific director. Ms Rampling is also highly prolific but she began her career in the mid 1960s. She belongs to that small group of middle-class female British actors, born roughly at the same time, who have managed to build careers in both Anglophone and Francophone cinema. Jacqueline Bisset and Jane Birkin are the other two members. There is something about these women that has caught the attention of French (and other non-British) directors and they have been cast on several occasions in roles that question attitudes towards sexuality – almost as if a challenge to assumptions about national types of sexuality is key to their appeal. All three began their careers as models in the early 1960s before moving into films.

In an interview at the time of Swimming Pool‘s release, Charlotte Rampling spoke about the death of her beloved sister Sarah in 1966 and how her grief had affected her both at the time and at various points in her subsequent career and personal life. Working with François Ozon, first on Under the Sand (Sous le sable, France 2000) and then this second film enabled her to experience a kind of abreaction in which she could deal with her memories. In Swimming Pool, Charlotte Rampling’s character is named Sarah as a tribute to her sister. Allied to this, Swimming Pool sees Rampling cast opposite Ludivine Sagnier who at that time was roughly the age of Rampling’s sister when she died. Sagnier was, however, already a very experienced young performer, had already featured in two of Ozon’s films and was touted in some quarters as a new Bardot figure.

Charles Dance as the publisher, John

The plot outline is simple but the narration is more complex. Sarah is a successful writer of a crime series featuring the unlikely-sounding ‘Inspector Dorwell’. Her small independent publisher (played by Charles Dance) senses she needs a break and suggests that she should use his villa in Provence as it is now off-season but the weather is still good there. Sarah agrees and sets off for for France. We know little of her background except that she leaves behind her elderly father and it appears that she lives in his house. In Provence she finds a spacious secluded house with a swimming pool and gradually she relaxes before Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a young woman who claims to be her publisher’s daughter, appears and moves in, taking the second bedroom. Julie has a series of one night stands with men she brings home. At first Sarah resents these intrusions and tries to block them out with earplugs. But eventually she begins to loosen up and to engage with Julie who has started to use the swimming pool.

Charlotte Rampling as the middle-class Englishwoman in Provence contemplating a staircase without a hand rail – out of her comfort zone?

From the beginning of the film, Philippe Rombi’s score introduces a score with a Hitchcockian feel, even though nothing disturbing has actually happened yet. In conjunction with Yorick Le Saux’s excellent camerawork and Charlotte Rampling’s performance we know that something is just not right about this seemingly straightforward holiday/writer’s retreat and the tension gradually builds. As well as Hitchcock, I also sense Polanski in the narrative. One neat touch is the crucifix hanging over the bed Sarah uses. She takes it down and puts it in a bedside cupboard. Later in the film, the crucifix will reappear. I was also impressed with the costumes Sarah wears in the first half of the film and the boring food she consumes in the house. The clothes are drab and the food is bland but gradually she becomes looser and her appetites change she drinks more alcohol, she dines out. Amongst the men who appear the two most important appear to be the caretaker, an older man in the village and a younger man who works part-time in the bar-café in the small town. I’m not going to spoil the narrative in any way by revealing any more plot details. There is clearly going to be something that happens between Sarah and Julie and it is going to be key to follow what happens to Sarah’s writing as she ‘loosens up’. Sarah writes what appear to be police procedurals but she and John have discussed/implied that she might write something slightly different. Perhaps she will let her imagination develop in this different environment? Julie is a highly provocative figure, often naked or bare-breasted and deliberately goading Sarah.

Julie – and who is the man standing over her?

The narrative has an open ending which seems to have caused some consternation. After thinking about it for a couple of days I think I’m quite ‘satisfied’ with the ending. It seems to work in several different ways, i.e. several different readings of the film could be made which are equally plausible/implausible. The ingredients of the narrative, the villa, the strangers, the pool etc. are each suggestive of genre elements and there are plenty of precedents. There is a famous French film with a similar title, La piscine (1969) which shares many of the same genre elements – the writer, the drinking, the pool, the sex etc. – and which incidentally has a young Jane Birkin in a secondary role as the daughter of one of the three main characters. There are many others too. A swimming pool, sunshine and a secluded house is the perfect location for this kind of film. The various cinema viewing classifications for the film are interesting – ‘universal’ in France but NC-17/R in the US and 15 in the UK. I don’t think it is an ‘easy’ film for audiences but it is certainly provocative and it made significant profits for what seem to be mainly French production companies (I can’t work out why it has a co-production designation) and Charlotte Rampling’s performance won her a European Film Award. The film was in competition at Cannes – early recognition of Ozon’s status as a director.

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