Swimming Pool

Looks can be deceiving. Take popular crime novelist Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), who on the surface seems to have it all. Her series of Agatha Christie-light crime novels have made her popular with middle class and middle-aged readers, providing Sarah with a comfortable nest egg and a certain degree of fame. Yet when an enthusiastic fan, devouring Sarah’s latest tome, recognizes her on a train, Sarah shuts the reader down, claiming a case of mistaken identity.

Sarah wasn’t lying. She wasn’t really Sarah Morton, but just a shell of her former self. After years of being a literary cash cow, her udders have dried up. As we slowly get to know Sarah in director Francois Ozon’s moody mystery “Swimming Pool,” we understand how she has arrived at this junction in her life, a fork in the road obscured by a creative road block.

As played by Rampling, an actress willing to take emotional and physical leaps of faith to capture the essence of her characters, Sarah is a woman desperately in need of a change. Unlike some people who lose their passion and cruise on automatic, Sarah knows she needs a change, and willingly accepts her publisher’s offer to recharge her batteries at his country home in France.

What begins as an escape from reality for Sarah evolves into a lesson in reality, a reminder of how life is passing her by, and her only option is to jump on for the ride or be left behind. It’s here where Rampling, who starred in Ozon’s equally revealing “Under the Sand,” slowly peels away Sarah’s veneer to expose her dormant lust for life and love. Instead of writing about interesting people taking chances, she becomes one of her characters.

Every great mystery needs a femme fatale, and “Swimming Pool” has one in Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), the beautiful, spirited daughter of Sarah’s publisher, who unexpectedly shows up one night. Julie is the shark that hovers beneath the surface of “Swimming Pool,” a seductive “Lolita” who precipitates ripples in Sarah’s solitude. At first Sarah is angry with Julie’s presence, then intrigued, and eventually enraptured, seeing inspiration, and perhaps a glimmer of her former self, in Julie.

Ozon, one of France’s most prolific directors, understands and appreciates the female form and foundation, creating (along with frequent co-writer Emmanuele Bernheim) strong, almost unbreakable characters who gain their resilience from each other. Sarah and Julie are as different as night and day, but they both lack the same thing: the love of a man who loves them back. It’s obvious that Sarah shares a history with her boss, but we’re never sure if it’s ancient history or just a figment of her fertile imagination. Likewise, Julie resents her father for divorcing her mother, and seeks out casual one night stands with older men as a substitution for his love.

After several nights of avoiding each other, Sarah and Julie eventually meet on common ground, and form an unlikely alliance. Their mutual attraction to the same man, a handsome, rugged waiter named Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour) leads to an event that could have been ripped from the pages of one of Sarah’s books. What the two women do about it, and the bond they form, brings the story full circle, with a conclusion that may baffle and anger some viewers.

Rampling is an actress that is obviously very comfortable in her own skin. She commands the screen, her every stare a reminder that we’re dealing with someone who has lived life. I especially loved the way Ozon allows Rampling to slowly unfold her character, as if suggesting that she isn’t taking a weekend holiday but is in it for the long haul.

Sarah may lust after Julie, but it’s not sexual. It’s a lust for lost youth, and Sagnier is definitely easy on the eyes. Her many nude scenes may define Julie as an unabashed free spirit, but Sagnier is equally naked with her clothes on. She exposes a vulnerable, damaged young woman who hides behind pretense.

“Swimming Pool” rushes over you like a wave of cool water, invigorating you with smartly drawn characters, strong performances, and tight direction. Take the dive. You’ll be glad you did.

HIGH DIVEFrench thriller navigates dangerous waters


Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Marc Fayolle, Jean-Marie Lamour. Directed by Francois Ozon. Not Rated. 102 Minutes.


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