In François Ozon’s justly praised 2001 film Under the Sand, Charlotte Rampling played a woman not unlike her regal self — an urbane beauty whom you could imagine aging gracefully in little black sheaths at dinner parties. Cool and aristocratic, Rampling breathes Anglo-French class and femininity through every pore. The years have softened her, yet she retains the steely side that won her the lead in Liliana Cavani’s extravagantly awful The Night Porter, and which she turns to amusing comic advantage in Ozon’s sleek new comedy, Swimming Pool. As Sarah Morton, a successful London mystery writer becalmed in midcareer crisis, Rampling channels with quietly goofy conviction any one of a bevy of famously testy and sexually ambiguous English crime novelists — Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Cornwell, P.D. James, even the famously hatchet-faced Agatha Christie, whose plays inspired, if that’s the word, Ozon’s hapless 2002 musical 8 Women. Like Highsmith, Sarah favors mannish trousers topped by throttle-tie blouses, enjoys a furtive evening tipple, and keeps the world at bay with a virginal prickliness that can flower into tigerish hostility, as an up-and-coming young writer discovers when he remarks brightly that his mother loves her books.
Beset by vague urges to write something “more personal,” Sarah is dispatched by her publisher (played by Charles Dance, a more convincing stiff with each passing decade), from whom she craves more forms of attention than she will admit to, to his vacation home in the south of France, there to rest and — he hopes — churn out another reliable murder mystery for the matron market. We see her shopping parsimoniously for groceries and fussing over her laptop setup, but soon she begins to loosen and expand in the warm sun and generous spaces of the house, so unlike the cramped, dark flat she shares with her elderly father at home. Her voracious eating style suggests untapped appetites, and when she gingerly removes a cross that hangs above her bed, we know something is about to give — and not just her writer’s block, which vanishes on the spot.
For a while Sarah taps away contentedly, until suddenly her serene productivity is shattered by the arrival of her publisher’s trailer-trash half-French daughter, Julie (8 Women’s Ludivine Sagnier), who appears poolside in yellow shorts and splendidly pneumatic breasts, and dives straight into the brackish pool in which the fastidious Sarah disdains to swim. In short order, local men show up in alarming thongs to share loud music, bad sex and excellent French-provincial food with the undiscriminating girl, who takes malicious delight in throwing a wrench into Sarah’s pristine routines. Or, in Ozon-speak, the two women are falling in love.
With the striking exception of Under the Sand, in which Rampling goes slowly and genteelly nuts when her beloved husband disappears, character is not Ozon’s long suit. Sarah is all head (watching her dance the night away with Julie and one of her hopeless swains is like watching your parents do the twist at a wedding) while Julie is all body. Their metamorphosis into ambivalent kinship, part maternal, part sexual, based on mutual espionage and bizarre psychic exchange, is never less than amusing, but never more than schematic — Sarah’s wardrobe takes a turn for the exotic, while Julie sheds her bravado and develops some potent survival skills of her own. The movie marks a return to Ozon’s early work (Sitcom, Criminal Lovers, Water Drops on Burning Rocks), all shiny surfaces and clever moves designed to blur the lines between fantasy and reality and uncover the kinkiness that lies within us all.
Swimming Pool is littered with images of watching — even as she barks at Julie to stay out of her face, Sarah is spying on the young nympho, while we watch them both reflected in mirrors, in windows and in the seemingly untroubled blue of the freshly vacuumed pool. As the cinema of voyeurism goes, this is pretty old hat. As a study in creative process, it’s merely clever. By the end of her country vacation, Sarah Morton has written her personal novel, and discovered that good writing requires a headlong dive into the muck of life. That seems right, but Ozon wants to insist further that creativity is a form of self-excitement, that perversity is an intrinsic attribute of artistic creation. Perhaps so — certainly it’s an intrinsic attribute of writing murder mysteries — but Ozon gives us little reason to believe that Sarah has done anything but repeat herself, at least in literary terms. And when it comes to the cinema of perversity, he’s in shallow waters compared to the greats (Buñuel, Fellini, Almodóvar, among others) who tether their kinkiness not just to shock tactics, but to social critique. Ozon means to have perversity speak for him, but in the end, it doesn’t have a lot to say.
The French countryside gets another workout this week, only this time the terrain is less forgiving and idyllic than the lush, tourist-friendly paradise that frames Swimming Pool. In Christian Carion’s delightful feature debut The Girl From Paris — the title is dulled down from the far more mellifluous Une Hirondelle a Fait le Printemps — a resourceful young Parisienne who’s had it with city life (played by Mathilde Seigner, whose austere, big-boned beauty grows on you moment by moment) gets herself trained in agronomy and buys a farm from Adrien (Michel Serrault), an irascible old widower who stays on in a cottage with every intention of watching the new owner fail miserably.
Inevitably, Sandrine does splendidly, modernizing ancient machinery and selling goat cheese over the Internet. Just as inevitably, these two stubbornly strong wills face off and then grow closer, notwithstanding a bitterly cold winter and the lingering attentions of Sandrine’s Gallic-gorgeous but weak-kneed ex (Frédéric Pierrot). For all its deceptively simple naturalism, though, The Girl From Paris is as briskly unsentimental as it is humane about people and nature — it offers us a Hobbesian but redeemable world. The movie is filled with lovely images: Serrault, so suave and urbane when last we saw him in Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, here grizzled and meditatively milking goats; Sandrine gazing in wonder from astride her horse as a hang glider gracefully circles the majestic Rhône Alps. The Girl From Paris may not have half the smooth technique of Swimming Pool, but it has 10 times the heart and soul.
“Everybody’s a critic,” the British writer Clive James once wrote, “but some of us write it down.” More and more of us, it seems. Only last week, the ubiquitous Arianna Huffington went online to pronounce Legally Blonde 2, in which Reese Witherspoon mounts a grassroots campaign for I-don’t-know-what, “a clarion call to movement building.” No doubt the masses are amassing as we speak. Meanwhile, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier, not content with anointing himself gatekeeper to Hollywood for Jewish-themed films, has begun issuing warning labels on films that have not been completed, let alone released. In an op-ed co-written for the Sunday L.A. Times with the historian Harold Brackman, Hier cautions Mel Gibson that his upcoming movie about the Passion of Christ (which Hier assumes, sight unseen, is actually about blaming the Jews for killing Jesus) is likely to inflame anti-Semitic feeling “at this tinder-box moment in our new century.” From the hardly fresh news that Gibson’s father is a Holocaust-denying wacko, Hier blithely deduces that his son holds the same noxious views. For all I know, he may — by many accounts Gibson cleaves to some pretty loony right-wing politics of his own. But the time to cry anti-Semitism — maybe — is not now but when the movie comes out and hangs itself. In the meantime, rather than play critic-in-waiting, Hier might reassure himself with what most critics already know, which is that when Gibson goes behind the camera to make a movie about a braveheart of history, it is likely to emerge as a celebration of his own personal holy trinity — himself, Himself and HIMSELF.