Asks a lot of questions of its audience, but ultimately the answers aren't too enjoyable to find.
Two warnings. Due to the structure of the film, I find this review deeply unsatisfying. You may do too. Also, knowing anything about this movie before seeing it may ruin the experience, but I've endeavoured (as ever) to remove anything that would hinder your enjoyment of a film that wasn't all that enjoyable to begin with. Read on at your own risk, but if you have already decided to see this regardless I recommend you stop reading this (or any other) review.
Author Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is struggling to find the enthusiasm to churn out the next in her never-ending series of crowd pleasing murder mysteries, the Dorwell series. Her long standing publisher John Bosload (Charles Dance) offers her the use of his home in a remote art of France to seek her muse, and possibly to get rid of her strangely incongruous 'sullen teen' act. She agrees. On her arrival in Frenchland she is met by the house caretaker, Marcel (Marc Fayolle) who transports her to her new abode in his batter Peugeot. There has a by-law passed by the French government such that all French characters in movies set in France must drive French cars, so that explains that.
She spends a little time taking in the rustic surroundings then sets up to start her work. This includes some thrilling scenes of her buying food, plugging in her laptop and so forth. The tension! Will the machine start? Will the hard disk need defragmenting? Stay tuned. Into this hotbed of excitement steps John's daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier). Arriving in the middle of the night, they find each other to their mutual surprise. Julie had returned somewhat unexpectedly, so John neglected to tell Sarah of the possibility of her arrival. The calamity! The two try to coexist in harmony for a while, but Sarah's stand off prissiness does not sit well with the more free-spirited, more extroverted, more nymphomanical Julie and the two quickly come to loggerheads. The drama! The tension! The stereotypes! Regarde, the depth of character shown by Julie! She can have her clothes both on and off!
If all this sounds a touch fatuous is because the first half hour to forty minutes are like the cinematic equivalent of having teeth pulled. It reeks of cliche and is an utterly joyless experience, and no amount of topless sunbathing on Sagnier's part is going to add to the experience. Given that the trailers have been trying desperately (and failing miserably) to market this as some kind of sex-drenched thriller you would be forgiven if you marched out and demanded your money back under the trade descriptions act. Then something interesting happens.
It becomes apparent that something isn't quite right. Frankly, for a straightforward tale there are too many odd events and too much symbolism. It's easy to write off Sarah taking down a crucifix from the wall above her bed and hiding it as a mere mark of her non-belief. However, when taken with the strange importance placed on Sarah and Julie's choice of food, Sarah wolfing down a dessert at the local village restaurant and an unusual prominence given to a seeming random bright red inflatable bed at poolside you can't help but wonder if director Francois Ozon has been watching a lot of David Lynch films recently. The colour red seems symbolic of something but exactly what remains a ghostly idea out of sight of mere mortals. Perhaps it's symbolic in general, rather than of anything in particular. The Lynchian feel continues later on once a dwarf is included in the cast. It should be noted that she does not have her speech reversed.
Along with all of this low-level weirdness the story takes a darker turn, frustrations giving way to one-upmanship giving way to a creeping paranoia. You can't help but wonder if Ozon has been watching a lot of Hitchcock films recently, at times trying to combine it's obvious parallels with Rear Window with the thematic sensibility of Rope. Both women try to strike up relationships with local waiter Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour), leading to some strange scenes of competition. Given the man-devouring past we've been shown of Julie and her string of seemingly random lovers we've every reason to believe that once she has her sights set on a man she'll get him.
At this point I realise I can't say any more about the movie lest the spoiler police get me. A browse of the discussion boards at IMDB will sort that out for you, should you feel the urge. One thing that doesn't need to be kept secret (tenuous links? Me? Never!) is praise for the performance of the leads. Rampling delicately shows her frustrations and interests in subtle ways, Sagnier throwing emotions around like weapons, revelling in her sensuality.
While it's possible for the most part to watch this as a straightforward film I doubt you'll leave the cinema happy, as it thrown in a few too many 'arthouse' moments to work as a conventional piece. These themselves ought to be acting as flags though. While it's possible to chuckle along to Marcel masturbating over the sleeping bodies of the women when Franck starts doing the same thing in the same place there ought to be klaxons ringing in our head that the film might throw you a curveball. Why is so much of the film disposed with showing Sarah's reflection?
The films' end is, to Ozon's credit, hinted and foreshadowed in a variety of ways ranging from the subtle to the more obvious. However, if you've not been paying attention you'll find the ending unexpected, baffling and disappointing. I was looking for the curveball yet still struck out when it arrived. I left the cinema a little puzzled and slightly irritated, ready to write this off as another deliberately arty critic pleaser with scant regard for structure and content. However, as with A Snake Of June the more I think about the film the more I can appreciate the thought and effort put into the movie, although I can't say that I was enjoying myself while sitting in front of it.
Is Swimming Pool a good movie? An enjoyable movie? Can the two be separated, and would you want to? Will watching it again prove a more enjoyable experience or will hitherto missed detail ruin it? One thing is undeniable, I haven't thought about a movie on leaving the cinema this much in some time. To get any real pleasure from this film you will have to go back and rethink pretty much every moment of it until it settles down once you do a little narrative restructuring . Much as I appreciate being given things to think about from a film, I'm not so sure it's the actual structure of the movie I want to think about. In many respects, it's closest cinematic cousin is Spike Jonze's excellent Adaptation and while it's nothing like as good, Swimming Pool ought to appeal to fans of that work.
Individual preference and mood will play a part, but perhaps this film is better appreciated than enjoyed. Even so, for many it will simply require too much effort to decode the movie for them to be bothered with it, and frankly they have a point. If it's only able to be fully appreciated after a few hours of serious thought and perhaps even rewatching it, surely that's disproportionate to the level of entertainment gleaned from it? Having now carried out said deep thought exercise I still can only give this a mild recommendation to fans of aforementioned directors and even that's with a barrage of caveats. Perhaps it would be better to rent this, then you won't have to pony up another fiver to get full enjoyment from it.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Ludivine Sagnier (Julie)
Charles Dance (John Bosload)
Marc Fayolle (Marcel)
Jean-Marie Lamour (Franck)