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Take the plunge 

A review of Swimming Pool

Swimming Pool (R)
Focus Features

Kink, sudden narrative upheavals, theatrical staging, a campy approach to convention and an interior decorator's obsession with surface: These are the hallmarks in the oeuvre of French director Francois Ozon (Water Drops on Hot Rocks, Under the Sand, 8 Women). Plot and character development, however, have never been big parts of his celluloid workout, and his latest release, Swimming Pool, is no exception.

Always a genre hopper, Ozon now takes a dip in the crime thriller -- albeit a semiotic thriller more concerned with the nature of the creative process than the minutiae of setups, dangling clues and payoffs.

Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand, 2001) is a beleaguered and uptight English crime novelist whose books are followed mostly by the doddering Angela Lansbury set. Morton's life is (as the establishing shots make more than clear) ordinary, ordinary, ordinary, and her bad British haircut proves it. When she complains of her boredom and desire to write a more literary novel, her publisher and lover, Charles Dance (John Bosload), suggests she take a breather at his modest estate in France. "It has a swimming pool," he says. Dum-ta-dum-dum.

Morton finds the retreat to be just what the publisher ordered, and quickly sets down to work on her next novel, relishing the quiet and seclusion while nursing an unrequited crush on Franck (Jean Marie-Lamour), the waiter at the local cafe. Just a few days into her respite, however, her publisher's teen-age daughter Julie (speech-defyingly gorgeous Ludivine Sagnier) shows up, gets naked a lot, swims in the filthy swimming pool that Sarah openly reviles, has loud sex with Frenchmen, smokes a lot of weed, and generally annoys the piss out of Sarah. The pool and Julie's nakedness in it quickly become a naked metaphor for the imagination, and we are meant to wildly anticipate Sarah's first plunge.

When Sarah can't beat Julie, she joins her, and starts a new novel with Julie as its central character (here come the semiotics). Sarah plunders Julie's journal and befriends her in an attempt to get closer to her character and finally dives into the pool. But Julie discovers the manuscript and doesn't fancy being played for a fool, so she brings the strapping Franck home an uncomfortable triangular moment. When Sarah declines the opportunity to bed Franck, Julie takes him out to the pool and ... dum-ta-dum-dum.

What's most compelling about this movie -- as the director and novelist in the movie are well aware -- is how sexy it is. The French simply know how to make sex sexy. And Ozon really knows how to make sexy sex perverse in a way that's far more tellingly human than the American cinema's fantasies about sex that have little to do with sex itself.

Rampling's performance as the knotted voyeur-novelist was spot on, but a bit pat in places. Sagnier's ability to simultaneously inhabit the naivet and Lolita-ish allure of Julie makes her an unforgettable visual tractor beam.

Ozon's Water Drops on Hot Rocks is still his greatest work, but Swimming Pool will undoubtedly take its place in the pantheon of stylish and clever French nudie movies. It's truly a monument to the darker reaches of imagination where our obsessions with surface can lead us. And it's a totally hot date film!

-- Noel Black

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