"Swimming Pool," from France, is a psychological thriller about evil in paradise, a film that puts you into one of those enjoyable but jittery moods where things may look sumptuous, but you know they're falling apart.
"Swimming Pool" was one of the better-received films at the last Cannes Film Festival. It's no "Strangers on a Train," but it taps into the same vein of sexual and moral anxiety.
Ozon bases his female novelist Sarah partly on Patricia Highsmith, the author of both "Strangers" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." Like Highsmith, Sarah specializes in tales of vicious amorality, coolly told. Incisively played by Rampling (the often extraordinary British star of Ozon's erotic-psychological drama "Under the Sand"), Sarah is also in love with her publisher, urbane ladies' man John Bosload (Charles Dance). When pressures get to his star writer, he suggests a vacation at his villa in the South of France.
At first, it's a dream vacation in a sunlit province far from strait-laced or madding crowds. But it turns bad soon. Sarah doesn't really know the kinds of people -- killers and connivers -- she writes about. On the other hand, Julie, the publisher's daughter (played by another frequent Ozon star, peach-ripe Sagnier of "Eight Women" and "Water Drops on Burning Rocks"), knows sin well, and she proceeds to commit a lot of them right under Sarah's second-floor window, often in and around the villa's initially messy swimming pool.
While Sarah seems locked in a vise of British upper-class repression, Julie bops to Megadeth records and sleeps with an exasperating number of sleazy men: drippy local leches and pasty-faced creeps with lascivious smirks on their faces. (At times, "Swimming Pool" seems almost a libel against French male swingers.) Among this lineup of losers, she also manages to seduce a hunky local waiter who has attracted Sarah's eye. The pool encounters grow sexier, more disturbing. Then, something dire happens, or seems to happen, throwing both women on a dangerous new track.
"Swimming Pool," deliberately ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations, has a mood that's often mesmerizing: Ozon expertly draws both the repressed atmosphere of London and the looser styles of the French countryside and he and the actresses bring both the major characters to sensuous life. (Except for Dance's suave Bosload, all the other characters are more nightmarishly or fuzzily presented, perhaps because we see through Sarah's eyes.) But if you compare that plot to any of Highsmith's or to Ruth Rendell, another inspiration for Sarah -- or even to Francoise Sagan's '50s novel "Bonjour Tristesse," which seems to be lurking in the background -- you can see where the film falls short. The characterizations are cogent, but the plot is less compelling, even a bit confusing.
Highsmith might have written a story of the novelist grilling Julie about her sex life and egging the girl on to more and more dangerous acts, becoming complicit in her guilt. But that's not exactly what happens here. Instead, the movie focuses on something closer to a sexual-criminal initiation. Ozon is more interested in showing us how the novelist gradually slides into the humid amoralism of the villa after learning that her boss/mentor Bosload is an orgy devotee and his daughter is almost pathologically promiscuous.
Ozon is a modern gay filmmaker who is usually unabashed about exposing homoerotic and feminist themes in his work, but here he celebrates both the high acting gifts and the intense sexuality of his two stars with an almost wicked relish. For Sagnier, that seems easier; she plays another sultry French hoyden in the tradition that goes back to Brigitte Bardot and beyond. But American audiences, especially the ones who missed "Under the Sand," may be startled at how much sensuality (and skin) Rampling reveals, especially considering the fact that she's been a noted international screen beauty ever since she played the nasty roommate in 1966's "Georgy Girl." Is she ageless? Apparently -- but more important, she's still a daring actress willing to take big emotional and psychological risks on-screen. Immersed here in both the fair, dreamy air and chilly, deeper waters, Rampling and Sagnier make "Swimming Pool" a fine sunlit noir, oozing sensuality and menace.
Directed and written by Francois Ozon; photographed by Yorick Le Saux; edited by Monica Coleman; production designed by Wouter Zoon; music by Philippe Rombi; produced by Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier. In English and French, with English subtitles. A Focus Features release; opens Wednesday. Running time: 1:42. MPAA rating: R (for sensuality, nudity, language).
Sarah Morton.....Charlotte Rampling
John Bosload.....Charles Dance
Marcel's Daughter.....Mireille Mosse