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.
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.
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.
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.
I’d heard mixed reports about this film. I’ve seen some but not all of the François Ozon films released in the UK and the last two I saw, Potiche (2010) and Dans la maison (2012), were a hoot. This new film promised something rather different, being adapted from a Ruth Rendell short story. Perhaps it is a cliché but ‘continental’ adaptations of Ruth Rendell often seem much more serious/sophisticated than UK adaptations. I still remember with pleasure Almodovar’s Live Flesh (Spain 1997), Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (France 1995) and Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001) – and there are more I haven’t seen.
The promotion of this film seems quite coy in the way it tries to avoid ‘spoilers‘ but to say anything sensible about the film I have to reveal the central issue. (So be warned, if you want complete surprise, DON’T READ ON.) The film begins with a stunning opening sequence, virtually without dialogue, in which we see the funeral of a young woman, Laure, and the eulogy from her best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) who pledges to look out for the widowed David (Romain Duris) and the couple’s daughter Lucie who is only a few months old. The opening also gives us flashbacks to the intense relationship between Claire and Laure that began when they were small children. A few weeks after the funeral Claire visits David and is taken aback to find him dressed as a woman and feeding the baby from a bottle. He explains that by wearing a dress belonging to his wife, he is able to calm the baby. The narrative then begins to explore the relationship between Claire and David – and to deal with the complication of Claire’s husband Gilles. Things don’t quite work out as some audiences might suspect and I’ll leave it there.
Like Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon is a gay man adapting a female novelist who was herself prepared to explore all kinds of characters and relationships. Ruth Rendell is generally thought of as a crime writer but she also explored the psychology of unusual relationships. I wasn’t familiar with the short story ‘The New Girlfriend’ but I’m certainly interested in finding it now. The narrative that Ozon constructs sometimes plays like Hitchcock (especially when the score by Philippe Rombi kicks in). I’ve also seen reviews that reference Douglas Sirk. This is certainly a melodrama and it takes place in the milieu of the upper middle class. All That Heaven Allows (1955) feels like an appropriate reference. At other times the tone is comic and I also found the film to be intensely erotic in parts.
Visiting IMDB, I note both big supporters and major detractors. Two ‘users’ claim this is the worst film they’ve ever seen. I’ll put my cards on the table. I loved every minute of the film. Romain Duris is for me a major star of French cinema. I realise now that I have seen Anaïs Demoustier in several other films but up until now I hadn’t really ‘noticed’ her. Now I feel foolishly in love. What is interesting is that the film places her almost in the masculine role – she’s ‘on top’ in sexual encounters and she generally wears the trousers when David is in drag. Personally I preferred her this way – or at least with her freckles on display when ‘Virginia’ (David) is in full warpaint. You’ll gather from this that Ozon is ‘playing’ with gender identities big time. Sometimes his storytelling teeters on the edge of farce but he is in control and he’s well served by great performances from the three lead actors.
Nuff said. This is a melodrama par excellence.
A good trailer:
This film turned out rather differently than I expected from my brief glance at reviews. (The best are by Ginette Vincendeau in April’s Sight & Sound and Philip French in the Observer.) Many of them suggested that the film switched gear or ‘disappointed’ with its closing section, but for me it remained coherent all the way through and the ending fitted perfectly. I think I was expecting the kind of comedy offered in Potiche or 8 Women but this was more a witty satire than a broad comedy. I’ve read a number of reviews each of which seemed to make reasonable points but none of which matched by own response to the film. I think that this is partly explained by the fact that I haven’t attempted to map François Ozon’s filmography in auteurist terms and I’ve simply taken the films I have seen as superior entertainments. Further research reveals that indeed the handful of Ozon’s films that I’ve seen are the most popular and that in France he is situated somewhere between the mainstream and auteur cinema – 8 Women had over 7 million admissions in Europe.
In the House (a dreadful title in English with all kinds of unhelpful connotations – as the cashier on the ticket desk said, it sounds like Queen Latifah should be the star) is a kind of moral tale in the form of a satire on bourgeois conceptions of art and family relationships. (Philip French helpfully informs us that the title is a reference to Henry James’ preface to Portrait of a Lady in which he refers to a ‘house of fiction’.) M. Germain (at one point we do learn his name, but I won’t spoil the moment) and his wife Jeanne are a middle-aged couple in a small town in an unidentifiable part of France. She runs a small art gallery and he teaches French at a lycée. He despairs of his sixteeen year-old students and she struggles to find art to sell (the gallery is now owned via an inheritance by twin sisters with few ideas about art). M. Germain has two surprises. The school is to suffer the fate of too many English schools – a ‘back to the future’ change of direction with a return to uniforms and an emphasis on ‘standards’. But this is offset by a discovery that one of his students, Claude, is a promising writer. The problem is that what Claude writes is a provocative description of how he has explored a friend’s house and spied on the boy’s mother. Germain is caught in a dilemma – does he expose Claude or encourage him to develop his talent? The boy’s writing is compelling and Germain (and Jeanne) are soon hooked. Each writing assignment produces a new ‘instalment’ of Claude’s ‘infiltration’ of the household of Rapha and his parents and each ends with the classic come-on, ‘to be continued’.
It all made me think of Buñuel. Claude, beautifully played by newcomer Ernst Umhauer, is the beautiful boy, seemingly charming but also sly and far too bright for everyone’s good. We are seduced by him just as much as Claude, Jeanne and Rafa and his family. The lycée is named after Gustave Flaubert and the key text here is Madame Bovary. At this point, my knowledge of literary theory and especially of French literature is certainly a bit shaky, but as I remember it, Madame Bovary indulges in adultery to generate some excitement in her tedious marriage. She has some fun, but it all goes wrong in the end. It’s not too difficult to see In the House as a play around the Madame Bovary figure. It works in a number of ways but the key line seems to be when M. Germain reads out Claude’s description of being aroused by the ‘scent of a middle-class woman’. This is shocking in several ways. Claude seems old beyond his years and the intimacy suggested by the phrase seems more in keeping with the later French realists like Zola rather than the Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Kafka, whose novels are lent to Claude by M. Germain. There is more to it than that though and if you know the works you will enjoy thinking about writing styles and about approaches to realism and to ‘moral tales’ – the ending curiously resembles Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari!
I’m not going to spoil the narrative any more – don’t read Philip French until after you’ve seen the film, he gives far too much away as usual. But you should expect the pleasures of a satire on both modern education practices and the ridiculousness of certain forms of avant-garde art. I’ve seen comments that the film is too clever, but I’ll happily watch films like this and I think it’s the most enjoyable film I’ve seen so far in 2013. All the performances are very good. Please go and see it. (A note for Des – in this film Ms Scott Thomas’ accent is explained by reference to her ‘Yorkshire relative’.)
A potiche is a useless ornament, in sexist language a ‘trophy wife’. It’s a brave man who would ever describe Catherine Deneuve as a ‘trophy’. But that’s the premise of François Ozon’s entertaining and beautifully made film, an adaptation of a ‘boulevard comedy’ first staged ten years ago or more (Ozon says ten, but Ginette Vincendau in Sight and Sound says it dates from 1983 or earlier). Boulevard theatre is solid middle-class middlebrow entertainment, traditionally despised by film critics but often popular with the public and with certain film directors. Ozon himself has got form in this type of comedy with 8 Women (France 2002) – his previous outing with Catherine Deneuve.
The plot involves a bourgeois family who own an umbrella factory in a small town. The factory boss Pujol is a tyrant who has control because his wife is the daughter of the company’s founder. The factory is going down the pan and the workforce is striking. At this point Pujol is taken ill and to her surprise Madame Pujol (Deneuve) finds herself in the driving seat. She proves to have an unusual ally in the local communist mayor and MP (Gérard Dépardieu) and soon has the factory moving forward. But Pujol recovers and wants his role back – the next generation of Pujols prove to be important in deciding how the factory will fare in the future.
As the still above illustrates, Mme Pujol finds herself in new relationships with both her daughter Joëlle and her husband’s secretary Nadège. This is the core of the film with a commentary on changing opportunities for women and I agree with Ozon and Deneuve that the narrative has plenty to say in contemporary discussion of gender equality, especially in relation to figures like Ségolène Royale and, God help us, Marine Le Pen.
I think that the film works on every level and I enjoyed it immensely. I’d pick out three reasons why: the tight and assertive direction which keeps up the pace, assured performances from a starry cast and excellent production design in evoking 1977 but making it seem vibrant not bathed in nostalgia. I particularly loved the designer umbrellas. The whole film was shot in Belgium, so it’s a great ad for the Belgian film industry.
It’s distressing that there are some negative reviews, mostly from younger audiences who seem bored by the film. It makes you wonder what modern audiences would make of Ozon’s hero, Rainer Werner Fassbinder who made similar but much darker films.
Here’s the trailer with a taste of the film: