"Visually, it adores the women it introduces. Emotionally and intellectually, it mocks them." That's how one film critic characterized director Francois Ozon's musical and visual feast, 8 Women, but I couldn't help but feel the same could be said for his follow-up, the initially intriguing but ultimately tepid Swimming Pool. One can't fault the French director for showing a certain fondness for women, especially those of a certain age; 8 Women was a shout-out to the great French actresses of the past three decades in Catherine Deneuve, Emanuelle Beart and Isabelle Huppert. 8 Women supposedly was a murder mystery that some felt crumbled under the weight of a weak script, with the cast feeling the pain.
Well, it seems we have a trend here with Ozon, who breaks very little ground in Swimming Pool except to show that Charlotte Rampling -- another veteran actress -- is as fearless as ever after all these years. Ozon also shows that he loves the female form, over and over again, as his camera undresses and caresses the younger, feline blonde Ludivine Sagnier over and over again. But you can only show a body tanning, walking, humping and masturbating so many times before you have to have a point. And if this is about voyeurism, forgive me for finally wanting to look the other way, for those who watch Swimming Pool ultimately can't help but feel stuck in the shallow end.
Ozon and fellow screenwriter Emmanuelle Bernheim (his collaborator on 2000's Under the Sand) must have been pleased with themselves in hatching a story about repressed British murder mystery writer Sarah Morton (Rampling) -- good to know some stereotypes never die! -- who uses the French summer home of her publisher and sometime lover (Charles Dance) to break out of her writing and personal doldrums.
Sarah's a bitter soul. There is a hint of a livelier past having survived London's mod scene of the '60s, but they seem a lifetime away by now. She's a successful writer as sort of a poor woman's Agatha Christie, and is resentful of the hot-shot new writers coming down the pike. After being introduced to one of the latest award winners -- who tosses out the back-handed compliment, "My mother can't wait for your next book!" -- Sarah's all venom. "Awards are like hemorrhoids; sooner or later, every asshole gets one," she hisses.
So it's off to the south of France to a secluded villa, but as soon as Sarah settles in she's immediately disrupted by the surprise appearance of the publisher's teeming French daughter Julie (Sagnier), who is every bit as sexually open as Sarah is closed. No sooner does Julie show up in the home's living room than she's out working the small town's studs and bringing them back for playtime, much to the chagrin of Sarah. But writers being writers, Sarah's a thief and a voyeur, and appears to have cracked her writer's block and found her muse in Julie. But the deeper Sarah digs into Julie's psyche, the more suspicious Julie becomes, and a relationship that started out frictional and then headed toward sisterly threatens to revert to frictional again.
And then there's murder! Because the deeper Sarah digs, the crazier Julie becomes. Or does she? And is there really a murder? Well, frankly, who the hell cares? Ozon and Bernheim so clumsily twist their already tenuous plot that you not only figure out where the story's heading but you really weren't that much intrigued in the first place. This isn't just quibbling over narrative laziness; it's about just how much Ozon cares about his own story, period.
Not that everything up until this point is useless. Understandably, Swimming Pool's strengths are Rampling's inner grit and Sagnier's outer curves. You don't have to have seen Rampling do her kinky turn as a masochistic concentration-camp survivor beguiling Dirk Bogarde in 1974's The Night Porter or as the reluctant, middle-age femme fatale ruining Paul Newman in 1982's The Verdict to know how utterly mysterious an actress she is. Those drooping, sad eyes have always revealed a fiery depth, and here, at the age of 58, Rampling is no less sexy, as even a swarthy waiter who dotes on her at a nearby cafe would concede.
Which creates an odd dilemma as Swimming Pool wades along. Our inner perv wants to see Sarah's boldness conveyed by nudity just as much as our inner prude wants to see Julie's inner depth. Maybe that's Ozon's point, that women are always defying our preconceptions about them. (News flash: Women are mysterious!) But when Sarah does finally give us her own version of a money shot, it feels just as contrived as the ending Ozon tries to build toward.
Ozon makes breezy comments about voyeurism, but nothing we haven't seen before (pun intended). It's just disappointing that, in this shallow spectacle, we don't want to watch a little more.
- Francois Ozon's camera loves to glide over Ludivine Sagnier so many times you might want to wash off in your own Swimming Pool.