Film 2018: Swimming Pool

The penultimate of my small collection of foreign films, Swimming Pool, a 2003 psychological erotic thriller written and directed by Francois Ozon (who was also responsible for the first Film 2018 film, 8 Women) is another from that time of enthusiasm about French cinema that I have only watched once before.

The film stars Charlotte Rampling (who was in Summer Things) and Ludivine Sagnier (who was one of the 8 Women). Rampling plays an English writer of crime fiction who’s feeling stale, the film takes place mostly in France, but both main characters are bilingual, and more of the film is spoken in English than French. Incidentally, I found it interesting that though Rampling has lived in France since 1978, and appeared in several French films prior to that, she speaks her fluent French with a clear English accent.

Rampling is Sarah Morton, successful author of the popular Inspector Dorwell series of crime fiction. However, she’s suffering from frustration at her work, which her publisher, John Boaswell (Charles Dance), tries to talk her out of. Sarah is pretty unpleasant and nasty about everyone around her, especially anyone who likes the Dorwell books, so John offers her his house in France, to enjoy some peace and quiet (and possibly to stop her getting anyone else’s back up). Sarah clearly fancies John, as she hints about him coming to visit her there, whilst he equally clearly has no intention of doing so but isn’t going to say that.

The next phase is of Sarah travelling to France, being shown the house by Marcel, John’s gardener, settling in, visiting the village, starting writing a new Dorwell book. It’s all low-key, undramatic to say the least, and is stretching the patience when her peace is disturbed by the arrival of Julie (Sagnier), who explains she is John’s daughter by his former French mistress.

It’s a contrast to say the least. Julie will at one point describe Sarah as an uptight old bitch with a broomstick up her ass, and there’s not a word of that with which anyone could argue. Julie is close to being the archetypal ‘wild child’, all brief shorts, bare midriffs, nude swimming and skimpy bikinis, which Sagnier carries off with a golden-skinned brio and a complete naturalness.

She’s also intolerably messy, noisy, over-friendly and has a habit of picking up some real loutish blokes and screwing them noisily.

Sarah hates her, but then Sarah would hate anyone who disturbs her carefully controlled, self-centred existence as a writer, demanding peace and quiet so she can concentrate (there are writers who require that but I couldn’t help but compare my ability to write on trains and buses, surrounded by people: trains are fine but the big bugger about buses is the way they shake about so you have to compress the actual writing down of words into bus stops and red lights if you ever want to be able to read it back). But Sarah also develops a voyeuristic fascination with Julie that we’re supposed to see as envy for her lack of inhibition, but which i see as the beginning of the next phase.

One day, whilst Julie is out, Sarah goes through her things and finds a diary that she steals and uses as the basis of a new novel, about Julie in one form or other. it goes great guns, and Sarah becomes more overt about creating a friendship with the young girl. Julie, at first suspicious that she is being used as a means for Sarah to get John into bed, nevertheless spills the beans, especially about her mother, who she speaks of as being alive when we will learn she died in a car accident.

Apparently, after he left her, Julie’s mother wrote a novel that she sent to John to publish, only for him to tell her it was terrible and unpublishable, so she burnt it. Julie liked the book, which has helped contribute to her air of disrespect for her father, and her contempt for his enthusiasm for blood, sex and money (hinted at being personal, not merely commercial), and by extension Sarah, for churning it out, for playing at dirt when she has no experience of it.

Curious at Sarah’s curiosity, Julie snoops in her rooms and finds the manuscript about her. This triggers the drama, as the film takes its long-postponed but inevitable turn into murder.

Julie brings home Franck, the day waiter at the village taverna, who’s been serving and talking to Sarah daily. It’s plain as can be that if it weren’t for her essentially English reserve, they’d be making the beast with two backs with great enthusiasm, and it’s a blow to Sarah to see him with Julie and fear the traditional night’s conclusion. But it’s a blow to Julie that, having paraded Franck in front of Sarah half the evening, he’d rather screw Granny than her.

She manages to get him to stay long enough to strip off and go nude swimming in the titular pool with her, and forces him down long enough for her to start a blow job, but when Sarah hurls a rock from her balcony into the pool, it disturbs Franck, who wants to get away. Sarah puts in her earplugs and remains unaware of what happens next.

There’s no sign of Franck the next day, no sign anywhere. Sarah goes rushing around on an absurd moped, trying to find him, only for Julie to confess she’s probably killed him. Drunk and angry at his rejection, she brained him with a rock, four or five times.

In a way, this delights Sarah, who swings into action to use her professional skills, knowledge and experience (as a fiction writer), to conceal the killing and Julie’s involvement. The two women bury the body in the grounds, which leads to the film’s most awkward moment, when Marcel gets curious about the dug-up dirt and Sarah has to distract him by offering her lily-white body to him. I’m not talking about Rampling doing a full-frontal nude scene when I say embarrassing: the lady may have been 57 when the film was shot but she’s still got a decent body. I mean Rampling’s portrayal of the scene, her expressions and her movements demonstrating at every moment a distaste for her actions, bordering on revulsion, that goes beyond the specific circumstance of sex unwilling into a more fundamental discomfort with the very idea of sex at all.

It’s notable though that this phase is where Sarah finally comes really alive and involved. I saw it as the chance to establish control, both of the world as it pertained to her, but also of the unruly Julie, who now has to do as she’s told, and if they ever meet again, will do she’s told then. Julie does make a tentative attempt at getting Sarah to burn her manuscript about Julie, but there’s no chance of that happening, oh no gollum.

Indeed, Julie then goes on to produce out of thin air a copy of her mother’s novel, that she happens to be carrying around with her. Julie’s off to San Tropez, to waitress a bit, but she’s bequeathing Mummy’s book to help Sarah finish her own.

And so she does. Back in London, John’s disapproving of the novel. It’s not Dorwell, it’s not got blood or sex, or at least not enough blatant sex. It’s too abstract, too subtle, it’s not Sarah Morton. She twits him about whether he thinks she should burn it. No, but not publish it now, after another Dorwell (and another. And another. And…)

But in the film’s most unrealistic twist, Sarah has anticipated John’s reaction. She’s sold the book already to another publisher, and she happens to have a handsome paperback copy of it on her (so basically a canny publisher has had a successful author poached by another publisher for a book written edited and printed, and he knows nothing about it, hasn’t even heard a rumour? Yeah, right.) She’s even autographed this copy, for John’s daughter, Julie.

Sarah leaves. As she does, a reasonably attractive but not beautiful English girl, blonde-haired, a bit more solidly built, comes in past her, to be greeted as Julie (English J), John’s daughter. She’s not Ludivine Sagnier. The film leaves Sarah staring through the diamond cut window in the door framed with an indecipherable expression n her face, before cutting back to France. A bikini-clad girl swims in the swimming pool, before hauling herself out. Sarah waves from her balcony, enthusiastically. The English Julie, with braces on her teeth, waves back. Sarah waves again, even more enthusiastically. The French Julie waves back. Sarah waves. One of the girls is seen from behind, but we’re not sure which.

So, what exactly was real? Sarah’s book with her new publisher is entitled ‘Swimming Pool’, and we may guess that it’s the story we’ve just watched as a film. Did French Julie ever exist? Who was she really? Did Sarah spend her whole time in France alone?

The ending’s deliberate ambiguity was controversial, and aroused much debate about how we were to take the film in the light of its last minute revelation. No-one seems to have considered the possibility that it all might have been real, that French Julie could have been the daughter of John’s French mistress, and English Julie the daughter of his English wife, though I suppose that ought to be discounted. Ozon’s comment on the ending was “Charlotte’s character kept mixing fantasy and reality. Although in Swimming Pool, everything related to fantasy is part of the act of creation, so it is more channeled and less likely to end up causing madness. In terms of directing, I’ve treated everything that is imaginary in Swimming Pool in a realistic way so that you see it all – fantasy and reality alike – on the same plane.”

So we have his word that there is fantasy in the film, but that it is treated as rationally as the rest of it, from which the most logical interpretation must be that French Julie and everything to do with her is fiction on every level. In a way, I find that disappointing, diminishing, to reduce the film to only one possibility, without the option of reinterpretation.

But, like a number of other films in this season,Ii definitely do need to make the time to watch this again. On a wet and gray Sunday morning, a summer on France is very appealing, even without the lovely Ludivine Sagnier to ponder upon.

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