Let’s say you find yourself in a comfortable but unfamiliar houseperhaps your publisher’s remote country home in the south of France. Suddenly, there’s another person with you. If it’s the fourth-grade teacher who never really liked you, you’re just having an irksome dream. But if it’s a ripe young vamp with a penchant for promiscuous sex, rich food, and murder, then you’re in a French erotic thriller.
That’s where Londoner Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) finds herself, and you might think she’d be at home there. After all, the protagonist of François Ozon’s modestly diverting Swimming Pool pens crime novels for a living. Yet there’s apparently little connection between what she writes and how she lives. In fact, Sarah doesn’t even like to be acknowledged as a successful purveyor of violent entertainments. Approached by a fan on the train to her publisher’s office, she denies being Sarah Morton.
Sarah is peeved because John Bosload (Charles Dance) is distracted by the success of another of his authors. He offers Sarah his French residence so she can write what she hopes will be something different, and what he expects will be one more tidy, marketable thriller. Cut to her at a provincial train station, being collected by the man who looks after John’s place. Sarah settles in, enjoying the sunshine but not exactly going wild: Her diet consists of Diet Coke, tea, and big bowls of plain yogurt.
Then, late one night, a car pulls up. Sarah prepares to defend the house, but the new arrival is Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), John’s never-mentioned French daughter. Julie likes to drink, eat, dance, and swim naked in the pool that Sarahfearful of germs and suchwon’t enter. She also brings home a different guy every night. Soon the formerly quiet getaway is strewn with cigarette butts, unfinished meals, half-empty bottles, and stray panties. Sarah reacts icily, yet she’s fascinated by Julie and her pleasures. She opens her laptop and begins to write.
A twist ending leaves Julie’s identity an open-ended mystery, but she embodies several less-than-mysterious motifs: She’s Sarah’s forgotten youth and repressed id, here to rebuke the older woman for losing her appetites. She’s Sarah’s muse, living the heedless, hedonistic scenarios the writer dares only imagine. And, of course, she’s freely naked Gallic sensuality in contrast to Sarah’s laced-tight English reticence. She might even be the embodiment of Sarah’s unacknowledged lesbian desire. Or, shucks, maybe an angel of death.
Death usually pays a call in Ozon’s movies, although lately he’s had a gentler touch. The director’s first several features were confrontational in the Fassbinder modeand indeed one of them, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, was derived from a Fassbinder play. But Ozon’s previous film was the daintily homicidal 8 Women, with an intergenerational array of French cinematic divas fussing around the corpse of the family patriarch. Like Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon has moved from rough-edged stories about gay men to slicker ones about straight women. Ozon’s motif, however, is murder rather than maternity.
The director’s first movie with primarily English dialogue, Swimming Pool is another step toward the mainstream. Although a little edgier than 8 Women, which was based on a ’50s drawing-room play, it’s hardly a provocation. In fact, the movie is an altogether cozy retread of gimmicks from vintage Resnais and Buñuel puzzlers. Rampling and Sagnier, both veterans of previous Ozon films, put some humanity on the bones of their archetypal characters, and the bucolic landscape is never less than brochure-perfect. The inevitable climax is not an ugly incident but the moment the still-attractive Sarah decides to take off her clothes.
Erotically free-spirited women helped sell European art cinema to the United States 40 years ago, and apparently the pitch still works. It might well have been another nude swimmer, Juliette Binoche, who convinced Miramax that it could market the clichéd Jet Lag to American moviegoers. And the sitcommy but sexy L’Auberge Espagnole is the big local foreign-language hit of recent months, while subtler work has languished. Ironically, Swimming Pool was co-scripted by Emmanuèle Bernheim, who also co-wrote Claire Denis’ little-seen Vendredi Soir. Both movies are suggestive, but in very different ways: Denis’ implies a wealth of experience in a few laconic gestures, whereas Ozon’s presents a lot of flesh and a little blood, allowing the veteran mystery viewer to choose one of several equally banal resolutions. Originally a champion of antisocial urges, Ozon is now a maker of puzzles so seemly they’re not worth solving.
The Twentyman brothers, the hard men of Aussie writer-director Scott Roberts’ The Hard Word, are inveterate robbers who never have to worry about long-term getaway plans. Following the three siblings’ unbloodied heists, their treacherous lawyer, Frank (Robert Taylor), simply arranges for the Twentymans to return to the penitentiary. The oldest and purportedly smartest brother, Dale (Guy Pearce), who works in the prison library, is beginning to get suspiciousespecially because his brassy, bottle-blond wife, Carol (Rachel Griffiths), seems a little too close to Frank, who may as well have his dress shirts monogrammed “weasel.”
A fan of Portnoy’s Complaint who speaks to his brothers in the indecipherable butchers’ argot they learned from their father, Dale is sure to conceive a plan or two. After all, showy overplotting is one of the hallmarks of the post-Tarantino stupid-criminal genre for which Roberts here shows middling aptitude. Whatever Dale decides to do, he can count on middle brother Mal (Damien Richardson), who’s followed Dad’s example into a gig as the prison butcher, and youngest brother Shane (Joel Edgerton), who’s the cute onewith a pathological temper. Still, the younger Twentymans seem content in prison. Easygoing Mal enjoys his gory job, and Shane finds something resembling love with his anger-management counselor.
When Frank springs the boys once again, this time to plunder $10 million from the official bookies at the Melbourne Cup, Dale, Mal, and Shane decide to deviate from the stated plan. So, however, does Frank, who supplements the brothers with a dyslexic sociopath who shoots up the place, thus violating a fundamental Twentyman precept: “Nobody gets hurt.” Now wanted for murder as well as robbery, the brothers flee back toward Sydney, still several double-crosses away from the resolution of their grievances against Frankand perhaps Carol.
Damp with blood andin one attention-getting sceneCarol’s vaginal fluid, The Hard Word is an energetic but unsurprising example of the smarmy, self-conscious gangster flick, with Roberts combining an homage to ’60s action movies (mostly British) with up-to-date irony and nastiness. Pearce is hidden under lots of hair, but that can’t camouflage the fact that he’s playing a variation on his wily yet clueless Memento character. Meanwhile, the miscast Griffiths revels in Carol, a character who’s simply a more carnal version of a venerable bad-girl type. Oddly, the action starts briskly but turns sluggish once the heavy violence begins: Perhaps the movie, like the Twentymans, would have been more comfortable remaining behind bars. CP