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July 06, 2003

Moviegoing: "Swimming Pool"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Are you tempted to see the new French movie Swimming Pool? I caught it a few weeks ago at a screening (take that, rubes), and Michael Blowhard says: Go for it. Actually, what Michael Blowhard really does is experience mind-bending rapture and then passes out from sheer delight. The movie isn't entirely satisfying, and I can't say that I lovedlovedloved it in the way that I do a handful of movies in which I see my very soul reflected. But I care not one fig for passing any such judgments. Why? Because the film did such a great job of putting me in my favorite -- ie., eroto-aesthetico -- kind of art-and-entertainment trance. Had it gone on for another couple of hours, I'd have continued sitting there, dimly aware of this quibble and that misgiving but otherwise blissed-out to the max. I may take advantage of this long, slow weekend to see it again, even if I have to endure a regular ol' public (yuck, patooie) movie theater to do so.

Much of what I responded to in the film is a simple matter of genre. The film is a hybrid of two of my favorites -- psychological suspense and literary/philosophical erotica. So the chances were better than fair that even had the film been a stinker I'd have been happy enough. It falls into the same high-end, sex-with-pretentions category as two other films I could also spend lifetimes watching -- "Year of the Jellyfish" (Valerie Kaprisky wreaking havoc on the Riviera), and the Isabelle Adjani semi-thriller "One Deadly Summer."

Perceptive soul that I am, I notice that all three of these movies A) Are French, and B) Are set in the south of France, and C) Are what might be called vacation movies, in the sense that they take place in vacation-esque settings, or are about people actually on vacation. Hmm, I wonder what this means about me. Actually, no I don't. In fact, I'd rather not think about it. So, no insights here, please. I'd rather enjoy my quirks and tastes than analyze them.

A quick note here to anyone who thinks I'm making a case for any of these films as great movies -- heck no. But am I saying that, as far as I'm concerned, they have their virtues and please me no end? Heck yes. Attention, world: Michael Blowhard will not be drawn into conversations about whether or not this or that movie is a "good movie." I leave that to the professional film press. Personal responses and reflections -- that's what I'm peddling here. In case anybody was wondering.

Hey, my ego must really be getting out of control. I've already referred to myself in the third person three times. James Cameron, look out.

But, really, flaws aside, "Swimming Pool" is pretty damn juicy, and is certainly a gorgeously-made thing. Here's the setup: a successful, middle-aged British woman mystery writer (we're clearly meant to think "Ruth Rendell" and "P.D. James") is feeling peevish and blocked. Her publisher gives her the keys to a house he owns in the south of France -- take a break, dear, relax and you'll find the groove again. Once there, she starts to unwind a bit as the air, sun and pace work their magic. Then, kablam, complications. A little tart shows up, the publisher's daughter in fact -- a pretty French girl who likes to party, to put it gently. In any case, a free spirit, a slob, and a challenge. The two women quickly get on each other's nerves ...

Ludivine wears a memorable striped bikini

It's a cat-and-mouse, indentity-swapping, misterioso, metaphysical-erotic mystery, in other words. (Even typing out this description makes me faint with pleasure ... ) To get a few quibbles quickly out of the way: Psychologically, I wonder if the film is really up to anything. I mean, does this kind of writer really need, as the movie suggests, to to be stirred up by drama? I had the impression that the Rendells and James' of the world like their solitude. But since the film's meant as a dreamy parable about creativity, maybe that doesn't matter.

Charlotte Rampling, who plays the writer? Well, I'm not a Rampling fan. Despite her ghoulish chic, I've always found her wooden and overdramatic, like an unamusing transvestite Warhol superstar. But she does have daring as well as a potent presence, and the way she wears her myth is impressive even if you aren't buying into it. Still, I couldn't keep myself from thinking how much I'd have preferred to see someone else in the role -- Kristin Scott-Thomas, maybe, or the Helen Mirren of about 15 years ago. And storywise, the film is all bits and pieces -- touches and notions rather than anything that has a core of emotional logic. It's obviously meant to be an is-this-real-or-isn't-it game of hide-and-seek, but even so it may be a bit too vaporous, especially in what we might think of as the third act, when Francois Ozon, the ultra-talented writer-director, starts pulling cards out of his sleeve at a rather desperate rate.

That said, on to the rhapsodizing. What a fabulous exercise in spell-casting. Should anyone be a little confused by what move buffs mean when they talk about mood, pacing, atmosphere, tone and subtext, this movie is a textbook demonstration of all five. (Like a lot of good French art, it's a lesson in aesthetics. Ever notice that about the French? How often, even as they're entertaining you, they're also instructing you?) And if anyone should be laboring under the (tediously American and juvenile, sigh) impression that sex is entirely a matter of navels, pecs, hiphuggers, and vigorous effort, well, please give this film a try. It shows how kindling the senses and touching the imagination don't have to involve going into sweaty, high-tech frenzies. The stone walls and dry sun, the play of light and wind, the spare but intense color, the contrasts between the two women ...

I found watching the movie to be like turning a precious gem over and over, or lingering over an especially beautiful, high-end-but-informal meal. I know I overuse the food comparisons on this blog, but, heck, it's a French movie: in this case, how to avoid making such a comparison? Precise yet luscious, lucid yet potent: Ozon is a wonderfully suave filmmaker, with a sly way of making love to his material even as he tortures it juste un peu -- an expert at calmly teasing and heightening any and all raw ingrediants.

Bless him, he clearly adores playing with archetypes -- here, the self-preserving old maid (who's still sexual) and the sunstruck, vivacious young slut (who isn't as crass or simple as she seems). Under siege from her own senses and from the provocations of the little Maillol-esque pop-tart, the authoress starts to unwind; she dresses more freely, starts to inhabit her body a bit, and even gets a little flirty. Annoyed by the rigidity of the older woman, the infantile little beast, who starts out in a daze of selfishness and sensuality, becomes a more slimmed-down, more essential thing.

Fun too to observe Ozon's canny use of settings. The Provencal house casts its own spell -- you get to know its rooms, its windows, its furniture, and its doors, which are all used as supporting players. And the central swimming pool image is beyond inspired. Pools of course always seem to set off erotic fantasy; it seems to be almost impossible not to enter into dream and fantasy states when you're by them. Maybe it's the promise of nudity, the bathing suits, the colors and water, the heat on the skin balanced by the shock and cool of the water, the way the quality of sound changes depending on whether you're above or below the water's surface ... An example: Ozon gets you really listening to ("appreciating," you might say) the evocative qualities of the many splash-and-drip sounds made by someone climbing out of a pool; these moments have such clarity in this movie that they're like fragments of Debussy or Messaiean.

Ozon also asks us to see the pool both as sex organ and movie screen. This pool is located just a wee bit downhill from the house, in a kind of grotto surrounded not by American-style waterslide, concrete and wire fence but by stone and overgrown plants. It's completely covered -- inert -- when the writer arrives, and it's still unclean when the girl first plunges in. As the women quarrel and merge, we start to see the pool as a (funny and lascivious) poetic image for -- let's just come out and say it -- pussy: the negative space around which all circles, into which all plunges, and from which all emerges. Are we projecting-onto or entering-into? And how might we know for sure? It's obvious but fun, this notion of pussy as movie screen, and movie screen as pussy -- just the kind of teasingly suggestive, obvious-but-perfectly-so, unresolvable metaphor this kind of movie thrives on.

The mood here, in case I haven't over-spelled it out already, is of languorous apprehension and dread (of a classily lewd sort). Ozon sets the movie up slowly and deliberately -- the girl doesn't appear for a long time, which means that you're really with Charlotte; Ozon wants us to tune into the writer's being, and he's using silence, pacing, understated contrasts and raw color to establish that. He has that French knack for combining the oh-so-civilised and the sensually-barbaric-and-unprincipled.

And he's aware of the power of people just watching each other, and of little passing digs. There's a moment when Charlotte tells the girl she disapproves of her love life, and the girl says, proudly and tauntingly, "Are you going to tell my Daddy?" (Ludivine Sagnier does a great job of fusing the childish and the haughty.) It's a gem of potent indirection: quiet and unhyped yet full of hurt and danger. Ludivine is offscreeen when she says this line -- like I say: indirection, baby. In a Hollywood movie, she'd be dead-center in the frame, driving the moment home.

ludivine.jpg
And did I mention that Ludivine wears a memorable striped bikini?

So: bravo and cheers, and I've already gone off to rent some of Ozon's other movies. (He's best-known for "8 Women.") It's the kind of mystery I adore -- unresolvable, because that's the way life is, n'est-ce pas? Here's my condensed guide to psych-suspense (and lit-philosophical erotica, come to think of it): tense and charged situation, atmosphere to the max, a minimal but resonant story, often a central, metaphor-like image, and maybe 3-6 terrifically perverse scenes that stick in the mind. On these counts, "Swimming Pool" comes through brilliantly. And lordy, those big scenes ... If you're anything like me, they'll infect your fantasy life like a lethal virus, and then make you say, Thank you! And: Please, can I have some more?

What a virtuoso and a smoothie Ozon is. The colors and visual design are late-Matisse sizzling -- natural and rich, tweaked till it hurts yet still redolent of the earth. Charlotte wears a mannish haircut and big-brimmed hats, and she's often shown interacting with doorways painted scaley, frosty-but-intense colors. Ludivine wears beribboned, streaming hair, a striped bikini, and she abandons herself to the sun, floating on a red inflatable mattress in the midst of that blue blue pool. Ozon also knows how to work wittily with a composer. At first, the spare but moody piano-and-strings music (like a haiku version of Bernard Hermann) comes at us in bits and pieces; it only begins to cohere as the women mingle their essences.

Ozon has an enviable gift for getting actresses to really give themselves to his projects. If I were an actress, I'd be knocking down his door for a chance to work with him too. He makes them look great, and he encourages them to make full use of the body-and-emotions stuff that is an actress's firepower. And Ozon calls into play their many different sides, as people, performers and public presences. (Hey, if you ever want to keep an actress from dropping you at a party, tell her she has many, many different sides, then look mysterious. She'll be yours, at least for a couple of minutes.) Rampling brings her own aura with her, while Ludivine's freshness and unfamiliarity is also part of what we take in; it's the legend vs. the ingenue.

The silent looks the women exchange are brilliant -- the uptight, hyper-controlled, perhaps lesbian middle-aged woman stares (angrily and maternally, with jealousy and perhaps also arousal) at the ripe young girl, who adds a little youthful disdain and pride and flings it all right back. Eventually these looks change as the spinster's sensuality and the girl's terror and neediness begin to emerge and cross paths ... These are shots and scenes that have the intensity of classic sauce reductions. Yeah, baby.

Phew: Messily emotional yet lucidly presented. As flamboyant as camp yet convincingly quiet and pokerfaced. Juicy currents racing every which way beneath a serenely amoral, menacing surface. All this, plus caressing/appraising/threatening camerawork and editing: It's Chabrol, it's Sirk, it's "Purple Noon" and "Knife in the Water." It's Hitchcock, too, of course, if with more emphasis on texture and mood and less on the mechanics of plot.

Is there really anything to the film? I'm not sure, and je m'en fous. Perhaps it's just a lot of overrefined nonsense -- enjoyably sexy/sinister gamesmanship. If so: Can I have lots more? Please?

Ozon's own Web site is here. It's a good one, with some interviews and many photos.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at July 6, 2003




Comments

Damn, you've reminded me why I like French cinema!

Posted by: David Mercer on July 6, 2003 12:36 PM



Michael:

The mood here, in case I haven't over-spelled it out already, is of languorous apprehension and dread (of a classily lewd sort).

Not to be a pest, and perhaps I'm foolishly insisting on more analysis than you feel is compatible with your delight in these types of films, but I can't help but ask: I can see the languor, and even the lewdity--I'm always up for a good spot of lewdity--but why the dread? What is the significance of the juxtaposition of these two sentiments? Could one build up a movie that functions in this same territory--presumably, a psychological study of sexuality--that doesn't involve violence, murder, etc.? Perhaps pettiness and rancor would do? Jealousy, possesiveness, wounded egotism, sadism, masochism? I mean, most relationships I'm aware of--even the really twisted kind--rarely get to the point of deadly violence. Or is murder a symbolic "stand-in" for all forms of emotional violence?

I've never found "true crime" stories--most of which involve both sex and violence--all that fascinating (which isn't to say that I don't have plenty of my own kinks; they just run along different lines.) For an ignoramus like me, what's the deal here?

P.S. If Michael finds this type of question too clinical, maybe somebody else can jump in here and help me out.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 7, 2003 12:20 AM



Hmmm. Doing my best to sidestep analysis here ...

A bit of spice, maybe? I dunno. Maybe there's some something we eroto-psych-suspense fans share about the connection between sex and death. Or maybe it's the playing-with-dynamite thing -- how to resist, yet you know something bad's going to happen at some point.

Interesting you raise true-crime. I'm a fairly big fan. The French have a tradition of stories about playing with fire -- because, oolala, you're so worldy and you know your way around -- and then, despite what a suave person you are, getting tragically burned -- "Liaisons Dangereuses" is an example. I think I like the oolala factor -- rube American that I am, I feel like I'm being welcomed into a classy, decadent club, and it's great fun trying to keep a straight face.

But, sociologically, I've always suspected that the French love these tales because they're so goddamned bored most of the time. What does it take to pierce the jadedness? Perhaps something a little vicious.

I think I also like the tragic view of sex, or of sex as central to tragedy -- letting it into the room is the same as letting mortality itself into the room.

A contrast is with stuff like Pinter -- all sinister, no juice. Just that awful British nastiness, people being wounding and snarky with each other, and without any physical relish in it. The sauce never flows, if you will.

I think I also like the underlying conviction (you see it in French and Japanese stuff both) that the beast has to be lured, teased, a little tortured -- and that it might turn on you. Dangerous little beast.

I think my soul may have gotten scarred by watching too many French movies as a teen, then spending a year there when I was 17, when I probably should have been necking with a cheerleader instead. Impressionable time.

Anyone got better theories here?

So how do you react to this kind of stuff? Not well, I take it? What puts you off?

And what kind of stuff throws you into your favorite kind of trance?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 7, 2003 1:58 AM



Is it any relation to another French eroto-thriller called the Swimming Pool, with Alain Delon, Romy Schneider and others? Your plot summary says no, yet it seems similarly atmospheric. I've seen it twice, and couldn't defend it on any grounds save the same ones, you do. It's langurous, and holidaybound, and sensuous. Yet it's also complete nonsense. Nobody else makes movies like the French in this respect.
You can read about that one, here:

http://us.imdb.com/Title?0064816

Posted by: Peter Briffa on July 7, 2003 7:14 AM



I'd never heard of "La Pascine" before, Peter, many thanks for calling it to my attention. Delon and Schneider, menace, sex and murder -- sounds irresistable. The French may not be good for much these days, but it's nice to see that they still know how to pull together some slim, stylish nonsense.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 7, 2003 9:18 AM



Two comments:

1 - Since the entire movie is the fantasy of Sarah, the writer. The character of Julie does not really exist except as an alter-ego of Sarah. Therefore, it seems to me, that analysis could be about what Sarah discovers about herself through the created character of Julie.
*****
2 - The viewer is let in on what is going on (at least for me - perhaps sooner - I only viewed the film once) when the scene of Sarah throwing the stone at the two swimmers is repeated.


It seems like the first followup (where Sarah meets the gardener's "daughter") is some sort of writer's dead end or false turn.

The second story line leads to the cooperation with Julie in burying the body.
******
I guess psychologically. Sarah/Julie rejects the idea of sex with the younger man but accepts sexuality of the older Maurice.

Given three possible sexual fantasy lovers, i.e. Julie, young man, or older man. The older one is more satisfying.

Posted by: Otto on July 27, 2003 9:38 AM



I do not know if I am an "eroto-psych-suspense fan", but I really enjoyed this movie and for all the reasons I read in this review.

About this "connection between sex and death", a good example is Almodovar's Matador, one of his best movies -hey, maybe I am an eroto-psych-suspense fan, after all!

And, on another note, have you guys watched "Sitcom" IMO, it is the most bizarre of all Ozon's movies. Weird, but good. As always.

Posted by: Luciene on January 13, 2004 11:58 PM






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