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SWIMMING POOL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance
Director: François Ozon
Audio: French/English 5.1 Dolby Digital, English DTS
Subtitles: Spanish, French, English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Focus Features (Universal)
Features: Deleted scenes, trailers, annoying promotional previews
Length: 103 minutes
Release Date: January 13, 2004

"You must be mistaking me for someone else.  I'm not the person you think I am."

Film ***

François Ozon's Swimming Pool is the French director's first attempt at a mainstream English language film.  Following upon the recent success of his musical-murder mystery hybrid 8 Women (2002), Ozon's new film is a quiet, introspective character study of an English author's search for new inspiration.  That author is Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a frosty, sexually-repressed middle-aged woman who has tired of her popular mystery series and wants to explore more meaningful and personal themes for her next novel.  After speaking with her editor, John Bosload (Charles Dance), Sarah decides to spend some time alone at his French country house.  The home will be uninhabited, and perhaps in the quiet solitude of rural life, Sarah will find her inspiration.

Sarah leaves England and settles into the editor's country home, a stately manor with a large lawn and backdoor swimming pool.  Initially, her days are tranquil, with hardly a soul in sight to disturb her.  In moments of boredom, she freely roams the countryside and visits the nearby village for food, supplies, or a hot lunch at the local bistro.  Life here is, in essence, a wonderfully relaxing atmosphere.

One day, however, her solitude is disturbed by a night-time intruder into the home.  The unwelcome visitor, it turns out, is Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), the daughter of Sarah's editor.  Her sudden arrival is unexpected and perhaps disappointing for the older woman, who had become accustomed to being alone.  Furthermore, Julie is very much Sarah's opposite, being younger, more free-spirited, and decidedly more sexually-liberated.  The morning after her arrival, Julie removes the protective covering from the manor's swimming pool and cleans the pool.  Julie has come, as Sarah fears, to stay for a while.

The two women do not initially get along very well.  In Julie's opinion, Sarah is too uptight, like a witch with "a broomstick up her butt."  Julie even bluntly accuses Sarah of being "just a frustrated English woman who writes about dirty things but never does them."  For her part, Sarah frowns heavily upon Julie's promiscuity, although Sarah is not entirely on superior morale grounds (the film alludes to a past adulterous relationship between Sarah and her editor).  Sarah is seen rummaging through Julie's room or reading her diary and always observing Julie from afar, whether from the balcony as Julie swims or through windows when she is with another man.  Some of this behavior may be the inherently inquisitive mind of a writer seeking to understand a possible role model for a character.  But, on a more personal level, it is evident of Sarah's unspoken jealousy of Julie's youth, her sexuality, and her openness, all qualities which Sarah lacks or has lost.

Rampling's role is perhaps a bit thankless.  Sarah initially comes across as a not-particularly pleasant woman.  Her facial features are continually taut, as though she were wearing a frequent scowl upon her face.  She is snappish and even a bit arrogant, as though her financial success has somehow granted her the right to act rudely.  Sarah seems socially isolated, more comfortable with isolation than in the company of people.  It is only very late in the film that Sarah becomes more affable, but by the time of her transformation, many viewers may have forsaken her altogether.

Julie is the more intriguing character.  She is sexually-charged and not afraid to use her physicality to her own advantage.  There is a quiet sadness about her whose source is only gradually revealed, but this mystery makes her the more sympathetic of the two characters.  It is Julie's subconscious insecurity which eventually draws Sarah to her and which helps to alleviate the tension between both women.

Swimming Pool is an introspective film in which almost as much information is communicated visually and metaphorically as through dialogue.  In fact, the film's swimming  pool, part of the country manor, is itself a symbol - a mirror or reflection, in a sense.

As a "French" film, the story is at its strongest during the first half, when it concentrates upon the uneasy relation between Sarah and Julie.  It is in these passages of character study that the film excels.  Unfortunately, just as the film hits its full stride, it takes a misstep.  The concluding act is a bit disappointing in how it seems to betray all the film's previous efforts in carefully establishing a realistic and intriguing relationship between the two women.  In short, Swimming Pool inexplicably metamorphoses into a weird generic thriller in a finale that feels superimposed, fake, and unconvincing.  It is a common flaw of most Hollywood films, although one might have wished that Swimming Pool could have avoided this trapping.

The film's saving grace is a subtle ending that paints the entire finale in a different light, causing the viewer to re-examine his or her own misconceptions of the film's final act.  Attentive viewers will probably discern the truth long before the conclusion, but at least the ending offers a very plausible explanation for the film's sudden change in course.  Nevertheless, perhaps the filmmakers could have sought a different but more reasonable manner in which to communicate their message.  As it is, viewers must not give up on the film and should watch it in its entirety.  Despite some flaws in its concluding act, Swimming Pool is truly a mesmerizing and absorbing film that successfully blends for the most part the character strengths of European cinema with the plot-driven narratives of conventional Hollywood films.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Both Rampling and Sagnier had worked previously with Ozon in 8 Women.  Their characters in that film were radically different, with Rampling as a sexually-liberated woman and Sagnier as innocent and virtuous young girl!

Video *** 1/2

Swimming Pool is presented in a color, anamorphic widescreen format.  In general, the transfer looks quite good, with natural skin tones and clear, detailed images.  Dark scenes exhibit no image break-up.  All in all, this is a fine transfer.

Audio ****

Swimming Pool can be heard in either a French or English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track.  Regardless, both French and English are spoken throughout the film anyways (with subtitles available).  In addition, people with DTS systems may choose an English DTS audio option.  As with all DTS soundtracks, this track sounds quite superb although not particularly different from the Dolby Digital tracks.  I question the need for a DTS audio track for this film, which is mostly quiet with scattered dialogue sequences (the extra space could have been used for more bonus features).  Nevertheless, Swimming Pool sounds quite marvelous, no matter the audio track.  Ambience sounds are well-mixed, and dialogue is always clear.

Features 1/2*

Focus Features has apparently decided to re-introduce a very bad idea into its DVDs.  Uniformly, all its DVDs start with several lengthy minutes of completely unavoidable promo ads and trailers.  The only method for by-passing these trailers is to fast-forward through them to the main menu.  Frankly, this is simply a despicable marketing scheme that I'd hope had been eradicated with the early Disney DVDs.  Apparently not.  On the bright side, Focus Features makes excellent dramas, and the trailers in this unfortunate opening preview include those for such films as 21 Grams, Sylvia, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Well, moving along, there are several deleted scenes (totaling around twelve minutes) included on this disc.  Mostly, these scenes involve Sarah Morton wandering the countryside and exploring the locales, perhaps searching for her inspiration.

There is also a ridiculous trailer that portrays the film as a suspense murder-mystery.  Promoting this film as a thriller is, of course, very misleading.  It is a drama about the relationship between an older woman and a younger woman and how their interactions change each other's lives.  That is how the film should have been marketed.

Lastly, this film is available on DVD in either an R-rated or unrated version.  I reviewed the unrated version, which presumably has several seconds of additional footage of a sexual nature not seen in the R-rated disc.  The difference is likely to be miniscule at best.

Summary:

Swimming Pool is a methodically-paced character study.  With strong performances by Charlotte Rampling and particularly Ludivine Sagnier, it is just the film for anyone looking for an intelligent film about sexuality versus inhibitions.