Slather on the SPF 30: Ludivine Sagnier bronzes herself in François Ozon's Swimming Pool.
Sex, murder, and cross-generational envy in the French countryside

San Antonio film lovers who troll online for reviews of foreign films as they make their slow journey from New York to Texas will undoubtedly already know one thing about François Ozon's new Swimming Pool: Ludivine Sagnier is a babe. The young French actress, lithe and blonde, spends much of the film practically naked, and readers of early reviews can just about hear the hot blood coursing through the veins of middle-aged men who have just spent an hour and a half watching her strut insouciantly across a movie screen.

Whatever this says about males who spend their lonely days in darkened theaters, the carnal tone of advance reviews is a good point from which to view the film's real subject, the way Sagnier's casual but supersized sexuality effects Charlotte Rampling's Sarah Morton, a middle-aged and emotionally constricted novelist.

Morton writes detective stories for little old ladies and has evidently become good at her job by emulating her audience: Rampling, an actress who often exudes sensuality, has made herself a fuddy-duddy with an unappealing haircut, a perpetually pinched expression, and the kind of blouses one associates with spinsters. Miss Morton is having difficulty starting her latest novel, and is sent by her publisher to his French vacation home, the assumption seeming to be that she needs even more quiet in her life.

The house that greets her there is dark and still, the nearby village quiet, the swimming pool in the backyard covered up with tarpaulin. Not very inspiring, perhaps, but in the absence of stimulus Morton will have little choice but to start making things up.

Then an unexpected guest arrives - her publisher's daughter Julie, who lives in France and may be hiding out from some kind of trouble - with a clatter of activity. Fatty foods fill the fridge, the liquor cabinet is raided, and the camera suddenly shoots the house from angles that display unshuttered windows and sun-dappled greenery. Sarah finds strange men in the kitchen when she goes for breakfast, never the same man twice.

Hello, Odd Couple. But what begins as a Felix-and-Oscar-style showdown quickly takes on a peculiar flavor more reminiscent of 2001's The Business of Strangers; the older woman is fascinated by the girl and vice-versa. Sarah watches Julie lounge by the newly-uncovered pool with a voyeuristic enthusiasm as intense as the lust filling those movie reviews; as Julie beds every man in the province, including one with whom Sarah has been flirting, their personalities begin to intersect. Ozon encourages this notion by shooting Rampling in ways that mimic earlier shots of Sagnier.

SWIMMING POOL Dir. François Ozon; writ. Ozon, Emmanuéle Bernheim; feat. Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Marc Fayolle, Jean-Marie Lamour (R)
(As the camera lingers on Sagnier's thighs, breasts, and terry-cloth wrapped behind, Ozon followers will be astonished to think that this sexpot is the same sweet girl who, in 8 Women, was the single pure soul in a house full of ladies with ulterior motives. For understandable reasons, few reviewers seem comfortable pointing that out.)

Just as the relationship between the two women grows most confusing, the film drops a bomb: A character disappears, and we suspect foul play. The movie begins to resemble one of Morton's whodunits, and from this point on - with flashbacks of uncertain accuracy, deliberately vague transitions, and cinematic sleight-of-hand - it forces us to guess what it is up to.

Swimming Pool ends ambiguously, with viewers wondering what exactly has happened. Some interpretations are more satisfying than others, and even the best one seems like a bit of a cop-out. But the one certain thing about the film is the opportunity it presents to watch two captivating performances by actresses who owe their finest recent roles (Rampling in Under the Sand, Sagnier in 8 Women) to the same director. •

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