Swimming Pool: Charlotte Rampling on Vacation

Crime novelist turns life into fiction; enjoyable bitchery ensues.

CRAWLING AWKWARDLY under the desk in a borrowed French summer home to plug in her laptop, poor Charlotte Rampling turns her 58-year-old butt to the camera in Swimming Pool (which opens Friday, July 11, at the Harvard Exit), and you might think the director hates her. Not so; she's got an excellent buttand you'll see much more of her body before the film is through. Since she previously worked to marvelous effect in François Ozon's 2000 Under the Sand, there's an obvious conspiratorial bond between the star and the prodigy who's guided her third-act career renaissance. Their shared goal is to make English mystery writer Sarah as uptight, inflexible, and unlikable as possible. When she's interrupted from churning out yet another installment in her Inspector Dorwell series by the arrival of the French-raised illegitimate daughter of her publisher (who owns the house), you're inclined to agree with Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) that "This English bitch has a broomstick up her butt." Yet, to the credit of Ozon's darkly invigorating little crime movie, that broomstick begins to look like the spine Sarah never knew existed. At first, of course, she hates the truculent strumpet Julie, who brings home a succession of fleshy, hideous, older menall of them fond of the skimpiest Euro-style thong underwear, it seemsfor noisy one-night stands. On the wagon during her initial bout of solitary writing (booze is her bulwark against old age and loneliness), Sarah avenges herself by swiping Julie's food and winerefilling the chardonnay bottles with tap water like a thief. Hardly deep, Pool is basically a simple catfight picture, similar to Ozon's misguided 8 Women last year. There, he took the form of an Agatha Christie-style whodunit and turned the château-bound women against one another. Here, though Sarah is a Christie-style hack (which she knows and hates), the sensibility is hard-boiled instead of campythe harsh sun of the south of France and the knife-edged shadows of Patricia Highsmith. The movie's soaked in estrogen, but it feels like acid. Julie could be Sarah's daughter, a prospect that seems to horrify both women equally. Ozon is the rare director today who appreciates the power of stillness and silence. Julie swimming and sunning herself naked is less erotic than menacing. Between blue pool waters and the yellow sun, you know that something's got to give. When red blood does indeed flow, it would be wrong to say that Sarah and Julie bond over the experience. That would be too Oprah for Ozon, too easy (though Pool does cloud its coda with some psychological refraction). What Ozon understands, true to Pool's noirish conventions, is that crime clarifiesit allows both women, each for the first time, to act freely and independently. And if that means leaving a trail of men crumpled in their wake, it's a small price to pay for writing a best seller. bmiller@seattleweekly.com

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