U.S. Release Date:
July 2, 2003
Distributor: Focus Features
Running Time: 1 hour and 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (strong sexual content, nudity, language, some violence and drug use)
Swimming Pool is one of those quiet, intense little thrillers that have nearly become extinct in the cinema. Confined to one or two locations and having only a handful of central characters, the picture is a jewel that packs a wry wallop at the end—one so subtle it's possible to miss its implications. This is a movie that demands concentration.
At heart, Swimming Pool is the story of Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling in an absolutely fearless performance), a P.D. James-like mystery writer who has made a career of writing a series of police procedurals. Morton is at the top of her game, but suffering personal and professional burnout, she takes her publisher's (Charles Dance) advice and goes to his villa in the South of France to recharge her batteries and start a new book.
What follows is a glimpse into the lonely, isolated world of Morton (and to an extent every writer). We actually see the writing process at work with its moments of inspiration and its agonizing minutes of paralysis. And though Morton is the heart of the story, hers is not a very interesting one. On the backside of 50, she is beginning the long descent into Miss Marple spinsterhood that is marked by the etchings of weariness around her eyes and a self-important smirk. She is shrewish, demanding and a borderline drunk. But, at the villa, she is happy and content.
Happiness is deflated with the arrival of her publisher's French daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier, Tinkerbelle in the upcoming Peter Pan). A child of a broken home, Julie is a bad girl, who spends her days lolling around the villa's pool in various states of undress and her evenings having raucous sex with whomever she finds at the local tavern.
It is the collision of these two very different women that sets up the drama of Swimming Pool, and reveals its subtle genius. This is a psychological thriller in its truest sense. There is little in the way of physical conflict. The most damaging violence is done with a look or a word, but director Francois Ozon (8 Femmes) creates an atmosphere of danger and fear throughout that has physical import. And the end is not dependent on an over-the-top confrontation. No, it's a line of dialogue and a look by Rampling's Morton.
The acting is absolutely stunning, particularly by Rampling upon whom the entire weight of the picture rests. Though a middle-aged woman, she still retains her native, arresting beauty and is a joy to watch as she, at turns, self-destructs, changes into a sly predator and becomes a kind of surrogate mother to Julie. Sagnier's Julie is charming, frustrating and unlikable—and holds her own against Rampling throughout the movie. The men's parts (including Marc Fayolle's lothario) are a little underwritten, but they are catalysts for the action, so characterization is of little concern.
The villa itself is a character as well. It's a comfortable old house, which could very well play perfect host to a writer in real life.
Viewers looking for a typical Hollywood thriller will not find one in Swimming Pool. What, instead they will see is perhaps one of the most literate pictures of the year thus far, and one of the best.
Be forewarned—the sexual situations are far into the adult realm. There is both male and female frontal nudity, and the sexual acts, though not explicit, are not soft-peddled, but all of it is done in a non-exploitive way.