Director: François Ozon
Writers: Emmanuèle Bernheim, François Ozon
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Jean-Marie Lamour, Charles Dance
François Ozon’s poolside fable tells the tale of Sarah Morton, a best-selling middle-aged British crime writer on the brink of burnout. Neither commercial success nor public adulation compensate for the emptiness at her core. Superbly played by evergreen actress Charlotte Rampling, Sarah is an arid, desiccated creature with all the vigour of a long fallen leaf. Sitting morosely on the London Underground, her stick-like body smothered by a dull brown trench coat, her skin grey, lips and eyelids heavy, Sarah exudes a vague annoyance at still being alive. Across the carriage a fan, reading one of Sarah’s books, recognises her from the dust jacket photograph. When questioned, Sarah lies that she has been misidentified. But who is misidentifying whom, the fan or Sarah herself? Mistaken identity is a theme that surfaces repeatedly in Swimming Pool.
It’s not even lunchtime but Sarah needs a fortifying dram before she can face her publisher John Bosload (Charles Dance). She’s made to wait as John finishes seeing Terry Long, a young author who has won a prize for his first novel. Sarah immediately resents the upstart, opening her conversation with John with a viperous question, “What award did that little shit get?” Sarah doesn’t really want an answer; it’s just an opportunity to vent her spleen. She is jealous not of Long’s success but of his joie de vivre. Long reflects back to Sarah what’s painfully absent from her own life: on a minor level he represents the repressed returning into Sarah’s life and, like Brandon with Sissy in Shame, Sarah rejects the invitation to change. She feels hollow inside but, like a litany of other characters in Sexcatraz, fails to accept responsibility for her feelings. John suggests a change of scene and offers Sarah the use of his house in the Luberon, inland from Marseille. Sarah asks John to visit her; he declines because his daughter is coming to stay. With deft, accomplished strokes Ozon introduces the key elements of Swimming Pool.
All appears idyllic on Sarah’s arrival in France. She is collected from the airport by the geriatric gardener in another seemingly trivial beat that later proves significant. Sarah makes herself at home and from her bedroom balcony looks down on the titular swimming pool, menacingly covered with a black tarpaulin against autumn leaf-fall. She stocks up on provisions in a village.
Sarah stops at a café for a drink, where Franck (Jean-Marie Lamour)—a well-built man with a good-natured country air on whom much will later hinge—serves her. Nothing passes between them as Ozon again shows his preference for introducing major characters in a low-key manner.
For a few days Sarah eats, drinks, writes and has a good time. However she is woken one night by a car stopping in the driveway. Suspecting its occupants to be thieves, Sarah hesitantly descends the stairs wielding a lamp-holder. She finds a young woman, Julie (a magnificent Ludivine Sagnier) who turns out to be John Bosload’s illegitimate half-French daughter. Julie has a wild, unkempt look about her. The contrast with Sarah’s prim English matron couldn’t be greater and the two become instant enemies. “So you’re daddy’s latest conquest?” Julie asks, more statement than question, firing the first shot in a fusillade whose aim—like Albert Spica’s invective in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover—rarely strays from the sexual.
The next sequence gradually reveals Julie’s hedonistic lifestyle. She wallows in a bubble bath, smoking a cigarette with one breast proudly jutting through the foam while Sarah mopes about in a dressing gown as stylish as soggy toilet paper. Sarah stares reproachfully at Julie’s unwashed dishes. She tries to write but constantly breaks off to spy on the far more interesting Julie. Like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet and Renato in Malèna, Sarah’s voyeurism is soon rewarded. The pool’s tarpaulin, now half rolled back, reveals a surface awash with dead leaves. Julie swims out from under the funeral shroud of the tarpaulin and emerges, fully naked, among the detritus. Sarah watches with that same mixture of fascination and repulsion repreatedly seen in Sexcatraz.
Sarah later falls asleep in a deck chair by the pool but is startled by Julie’s arrival. Julie is topless, her firm, full breasts, glowing in the sun like aubergines ripe for a ratatouille. Unlike Sarah, Julie is alive, uninhibited, vibrant and very connected to her sexuality. Julie’s overt sexuality—the naturalness of it, her comfort with it—violates Sarah’s constricted boundaries and triggers a reaction. Attacking Julie’s sexuality from an oblique angle, she dismisses the swimming pool as a “cesspool of living bacteria”. Julie just sees it as “a bit of dirt and leaves.” Julie and that bit of dirt and leaves is nothing other than the repressed returning into Sarah’s life, seeking to bring her into connection with her physicality and her sexuality. She doesn’t want a bar of it.
As Brandon Sullivan discovered in Shame, the repressed is not dissuaded by rejection. That night Julie returns from the local disco with a man. The music goes on; the bottle-tops and clothes come off and the visitor tucks into the specialité de maison, i.e. Julie’s haunch. Woken by their moans, Sarah, her lips tight, watches as they have sex on the sofa. Ozon’s camera does a double focus-pull as the attention shifts from Julie to Sarah and back again. Julie knows she’s being watched but it only increases her ardour. Sarah retreats in poor order and installs some earplugs. The next morning the visitor apologises to Sarah for the noise. Sarah, who has spoken French with ease throughout, pretends not to understand. Once again events are acting as a feedback system, mirroring the precise area of Sarah’s life where she needs to change, and once again she refuses the message.
But all this exposure to Julie’s unbridled sexuality has stirred something in Sarah. At the café the next day, she admires Franck’s strong looks and unaffected ease. She manages a brief conversation. This tentative intercourse with the virile Franck leaves Sarah a little giddy, the shy schoolgirl who plucks up the courage to talk to a fancied boy and is rewarded with a glimmer of attention. Sarah, for the first time in the film, smiles without a hint of malice.
Sarah asks the old gardener to clean the pool so she can take a swim: she is starting to see leaves instead of bacteria. She also feels inspiration coming on. Sarah creates a folder on her laptop called ‘Julie’ and begins to write, her lips pursing with the joy of creative flow. But Sarah fails to realise that her newfound inspiration is fundamentally sexual. She still sits in judgment, chiding Julie for coming home with a different man every night. “You’re just a frustrated English woman who writes about dirty things but never does them,” Julie retorts. For all her best-selling literary skills, Sarah’s jibes lack the barbed accuracy of Julie’s sexually laden invective.
Sarah finds a pair of Julie’s panties, then a diary. She can’t write fast enough as Swimming Pool accelerates towards its climax: the repressed will not be denied.
Inevitably, Julie returns to the house with Franck. Sarah joins them for a drink and some weed. Julie turns on the stereo and dances with Franck. Feeling unable to compete with the young, sexually voracious Julie, Sarah finds the dancing hard to watch. Julie, equally secure as the dominant female, entices the prim English matron to dance. The booze, the music and Franck’s appeal all serve to loosen Sarah’s inhibitions. She finds herself in his arms. Franck pulls her close. Their lips are tantalisingly close. Their hips bump. Julie snootily dumps herself on the sofa. The music ends, breaking the spell. Sarah experiences a jolt of shame at having pressed her loins against those of a virtual stranger. This is too much, too soon for Sarah: feeling uneasy at this violation of her boundaries, she experiences a sudden urge to retreat and excuses herself for the night.
Withdrawal brings Sarah no respite. Still intoxicated in more ways than one, she can’t sleep and pounds on her laptop. Voices carry from the pool. Sarah looks out and sees Julie and Franck frolicking naked. Julie goes down on Franck at the pool’s edge, enflaming Sarah’s sexual jealousy. That brief bump of the hips was enough to give her a sense of possession of Franck; already her unconscious seeks to legitimise the possibility of sex between them. In a moment reminiscent of Erika Kohut placing broken glass in her student’s coat pocket in The Piano Teacher, Sarah hurls a stone into the pool, disrupting the sex act and precipitating a fight between Franck and Julie.
But sex between Sarah and Franck is not what the screenwriters—or the repressed feelings welling inside her—dictate. The next morning Sarah makes her daily pilgrimage to the café but finds it closed. Franck has disappeared. The crime writer turns detective: Sarah finds Franck’s half-burnt sock in the fireplace and blood stained tiles by the pool. Julie breaks down and admits she killed Franck. His body is in the shed. The women trundle him in a wheelbarrow past the swimming pool, now with a macabre autumn air as the gruesome trio are reflected in its dark waters. After digging all night they bury Franck at the bottom of the garden as dawn breaks over the Luberon.
The geriatric gardener, so long forgotten, arrives for his daily round. He is drawn to the patch of disturbed earth at the bottom of the garden. Julie lounges by the pool, unaware of the danger. But Sarah spots it from her balcony. Drenched in fresh air and glorious autumn sunlight, she opens her robe and, echoing the young Annabel in a Cannes boatshed in Lolita, exposes herself. The gardener blinks up at Sarah. He shuffles up to her room. Sarah lies naked on the bed, revealing not only herself but yet another of the insidious effects of our sexual covenants.
For all that the camera has dawdled on Ludivine Sagnier’s full young breasts it now gives a much fuller view of Rampling’s 56-year-old body. This causes a slight formal jolt: societal programming makes us regard nudity in anyone over a certain age—about 40—as both inappropriate and unappealing. Try telling that to the gardener. He caresses Sarah’s feet then slides up her shins. She squirms with pleasure as he touches her where she hasn’t been touched for, one imagines, many a long year. But exposure to Julie’s sexual openness now allows Sarah to accept a man’s touch without shame and allow sexual pleasure into her life.
And then Julie leaves, departing into the nothingness from which she first appeared. Sarah returns to London and visits John Bosload to discuss her latest manuscript. Sarah’s clothes have colour now; so does her face. “I didn’t recognise you in it,” John opines, as the pack of cards of the film’s identities gets another shuffle. He doesn’t want to publish the book: “I don’t think that writing about feelings is your strong suit.” But Sarah has pre-empted him: she’s signed with another publisher who loves the book. And as she walks out of John Bosload’s life, cheeks aglow and head held high, his daughter Julia walks in. Not as curvaceous as Julie, perhaps, and in all likelihood not as sexually ravenous—but enough to have inspired a burnt-out, middle-aged woman to shake off her repressed sexuality and emerge with a new vibrancy and joie de vivre.
Sarah has escaped from Sexcatraz.
 “The dislike of dirt in the literal sense seemed to go with an extreme interest in dirt in the moral sense.” (G. Rattray Taylor, Sex in History)