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'Swimming Pool'

'Swimming Pool' dips into sexy waters

Friday, August 01, 2003

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

That aquamarine allure is irresistible, but a cool dip can become too hot to handle in Francois Ozon's shimmery "Swimming Pool."

'Swimming Pool'

RATING: R for nudity and adult sexual themes

STARRING: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance

DIRECTOR: Francois Ozon


Charlotte Rampling, our heroine, has penetrated the Ozon layer before (in his beautiful "Under the Sand" of 2001), but the water is deeper and sexier here, and the language is English -- a first for the French director.

Did we say something about sexy? Rampling is anything but that, at first, as uptight British mystery writer Sara Morton, equally famous for her prickly personality as for her plots. Stuck for inspiration in London, she accepts an offer from her long-suffering publisher (wonderfully played by Charles Dance) to try out his summer home in France.

It's gorgeous, she loves it. Just what the literary doctor ordered -- until Dance's nubile daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) arrives, with plenty of attitude, to invade Sarah's space.

Did we say something about sexy? Look it up in the imaginary dictionary and find Sagnier's picture there for illustration. She lolls topless around the pool and brings a different guy home every night for noisy lovemaking in the room right next to Sarah's.

But hostility gradually turns to fascination, and a perverse kind of mother-daughter relationship develops -- as well as surprisingly rich material for Sarah's new mystery. Somebody's art is going to imitate somebody's life, and vice versa.

Director Ozon loves erotic tension, particularly the heightening of it. His "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," adapted from a Rainer Werner Fassbinder play, was a polished exploration of the sexual dynamics among a middle-aged insurance salesman, a beautiful boy he picks up, and their ex-lovers -- one a surgically altered male, the other a bona fide blond bombshell (played by the aforementioned nubile Sagnier).

There -- and here -- he delights in unexpected personality shifts from weak to strong, dominant to submissive, in to out of situational control. The two women in this "Pool" will be trading major and minor modes before their swim is over.

Rampling is tremendously effective, not to mention beautiful. Given relatively little dialogue, she speaks volumes with a minimalist Mona Lisa smile that -- like a fine racing bike -- has a dozen subtly different "speeds" for every emotional grade.

Innovative Ozon is a master of such subtleties, and of stunning visual details (photographed by Yorick Le Saux) to accent them. He likes the shadowy realms his characters inhabit and are changed by -- the kinkier and more dangerous, the better -- with black-tragicomic results.

"Swimming Pool's" semi-diabolical ending may or may not satisfy you. It's not giving it away to say that everyone (well, almost) lives happily and perversely ever after.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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