I’m actually talking about myself, my own creative method. I wanted to show how I work.
— François Ozon, indieWIRE.com
Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) likes to watch. Or maybe it’s that she thinks she likes to watch. An uptight British crime novelist, she’s made great sums of money by imagining Inspector Durwell’s investigations, but still worries that her publisher, John (Charles Dance) is paying more attention to the younger, hipper French writer he’s just signed — she observes their brief interaction closely, as though she’s searching out a reason for her latest, though apparently minor, block. “I’m not the person you think I am,” she insists, when John appears to be dismissing her concerns.
In an effort to calm her, John offers the use of his house in the south of France, the Luberon region, where the sun dapples back roads and folks spend long afternoons at the local café. Sarah agrees, thinking she might write something other than her usual (“I’m tired of murders and investigations”). She unpacks her suitcase with care, removes her belted trench coat, and, seating herself at the café, offers her pale face to the sun. At last, she has nothing to watch and hours of solitude stretching before her.
These first scenes in François Ozon’s The Swimming Pool move quickly, the scenes cut together with an easy efficiency, establishing character relations and basic settings. But they feel like they move slowly, as nothing much happens and no one says much: Sarah especially has little to say, even to her elderly father, whom she calls briefly on her arrival in France: “I don’t need anyone, you know,” she tells him when he worries aloud about her situation. Indeed, as acted by Rampling (who also starred in Ozon’s eerie Under the Sand), Sarah is determined to enjoy herself, framing her “rest” as a job of work. At once repressed and seething, full of interest and fear, she begins to inspect her solitude. On setting up her laptop so all accoutrements (printer, paper, pens) are just so, she quickly establishes a simple routine, shopping for tubs of yogurt and economy size sodas, consuming her simple lunches voraciously. She writes quickly, neatly copyediting printed pages as she sits on lounge chair.
And then, disaster. Or maybe, delight. John’s French-born daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) arrives, restless and noisy, as disruptive a presence as Sarah might be able to imagine. Julie watches tv turned up loud, clomps around in her mules, swims nude in the pool she persuades the aging groundskeeper Marcel (Marc Fayolle) to open. Julie stands over Sarah (who’s dozed off on the patio), inviting her to come in the water. “I loathe swimming pools,” comes the answer. “I know what you mean,” Julie rolls with it, her perfect breasts catching Sarah’s gaze. “I prefer the ocean,” as pools offer no “feeling of danger.” Little does she know. Sarah hates the germs she pictures gestating in all waters.
As the women’s conflicts turn more pronounced — Julie walks to the village each night and brings home a series of different men, each less attractive than the one before, with whom she has sweaty sex on the sofa — the film turns more finely comedic (they play their awkwardness with deadly seriousness, but really, the arguments are ludicrous). At the same time, their relationship grows increasingly tense. Sarah watches Julie incessantly — swimming, sunning, drinking, having sex — barely embarrassed enough to look away when Julie, steadfastly unruffled, catches her.
Sarah’s interest (in Julie’s sexual acts? her youthful ardor? her fearlessness?) intensifies, but she can’t think how to manage it other than in her work. She orders and narrates the seeming chaos she observes, or thinks she observes; her understanding of Julie is plainly limited, as is yours, watching with Sarah, through doorways and balcony windows, from a distance and within frames. When she offers to take the girl out to dinner one evening, she probes her with questions about her mother, her childhood, even her dad’s “secret” sex life. As all this information appears to suit Sarah’s own needs and expectations, you’re starting to think there’s something odd in the seeming perfect sync of the relationship.
Soon Sarah’s sneaking looks at Julie’s juicy diary entries. And when she finds a pair of abandoned underwear near the pool, she brings them to her room, where she keeps them as a sort of talisman as she writes. Julie becomes her muse, her model, her irritant.
Sarah would never act on her erotic interests in Julie, but she plainly likes the teasing process, the imagining what might happen, or what goes on just beyond her gaze. Turns out that Julie’s just as game. On discovering Sarah’s use of her diary, she decides not to confront her, but to seduce and compete with her, bringing home the restaurateur Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour), in whom Sarah has expressed some interest. He’s in over his head, but prances and dances as if he’s actually the object of the women’s parallel cravings. Not even close.
As events overtake desires, Ozon’s own interests become clearer, maybe. The Swimming Pool, his first English language script (co-written with Emmanuèle Bernheim), concerns creative processes, the search for a subject and a story, the commitment that must be made and the violence that must be done. It also concerns trust and self-exposure, betrayal and self-defense. The fragile absurdities of Sarah’s story (and Julie’s, as they become inextricably intertwined) only turn uncannier and less explicable. Your watching becomes as difficult as hers, but the revisions are all hers.