Words on Screen: Swimming Pool

by Dennis Campbell
Dennis Campbell, Willowick Circulation Clerk

‘How did you get that scar on your stomach?’

‘Is that for your book?’

‘Yes.’

‘The Gods did it.’

For the next set of reviews I am going to be talking about films that feature authors as the main characters. These movies can be fictional or based on historical events, but in all cases I feel they are worth looking into. Starting off our journey is one of the films that defined my childhood, Swimming Pool (2003). It tells the story of a writer, Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) as she struggles with writers block. She takes a vacation to a secluded summer home where she meets Julie, played by Ludivine Sagnier, who is an adventurous twenty something who spends most of her nights partying. Their two personalities clash violently and often lead to both hilarious and devastating conclusions. However, by the end of the film it is shown that opening up to Julie was what Sarah needed in order to complete her next work.

The film stars one of my favorite actresses of all-time. Charlotte Ramplings’ career has spanned over seven decades, and throughout each decade she always finds herself reinventing herself along with winning or being nominated for awards. Three of her most famous roles came in the form of, He Died with His Eyes Open (1985), Mascara (1987) and the Night Porter (1974). In the first she played the mistress of a murder victim who is being investigated for the death of her partner, during the investigation she seduces the investigator on the case and causes him to question all of his findings. For her role in the film she was nominated for Best Actress at the César Awards in France. Just a few years later she would star in Mascara, a film about a police commissioner who has a deep passion of Opera and for his own sister, when his wife is found murdered he tries to implicate the set designer who longs for his sister. This time Rampling managed to win a Best Actress award, this one coming from the Fantasporto. The third and final film is one of her more controversial, but her performance in the film is such that despite the subject matter of the film, she has gained critical acclaim for it. In the Night Porter, Rampling plays a survivor of a Nazi Concentration Camp, after the war, she begins a BDSM relationship with one of the former guards stationed at the camp. The film contains one of the more recognizable scenes in modern Italian cinema. Rampling, still a prisoner in the Concentration Camp, dressed in SS attire, performs a rendition of If I Could Make a Wish by Marlene Dietrich. In many ways the film, Swimming Pool, was very personal to Rampling. One reason was that her character was named after her sister, who committed suicide at an early age. Rampling said in an interview with the Guardian, ‘I thought that after such a very long time of not letting her be with me that I would like to bring her back into my life.’ Ramplings’ performance in the film mirrors much of her later roles. She plays a very dignified character who takes little to no nonsense from anyone, and does her best to avoid the limelight. There is a scene early on in the film where a fan of her work recognizes her and she denies being Sarah Morton, echoing how many of her roles in the later half of her career act.

From a very early age, Ludivine Sagnier established herself as one of the brighter and more promising actresses in the International scene. Starting out at the age of ten, Sagnier began acting in comedy roles such as Husbands, Wives, Lovers (1989), where she played a daughter who goes along with her parents to the island of Ré and tries to be an adult while the parents act themselves like children. Her career then spent several years on the small screen as finding roles outside of television became difficult. From 1992-98, she starred in six movies, the most famous being Passion Interdite (1998) in which she plays the character Estelle the daughter of the main character, Richard, who has final divorced his wife and is looking for a new relationship. When planning a holiday around All Saints’ Day, the ex-wife shows up and throws everything out of balance. Her biggest role to date came in 2002 with the crime drama, 8 Women. A film about a murdered man with eight women desperate to know the person behind the crime, the catch is all of them have a motive. For her role, Sagnier won Outstanding Artistic Achievement at the Berlin International Film Festival. She soon earned her first role that gave her recognition across all waters with the 2003 adaptation of Peter Pan. In the film she plays Tinker Bell and while fantasy films had to this point been something she had not yet dabbled in. The 2003 version is much more of a drama than anything else, so she slid right into the role. Then we finally come to the movie we are talking about today, Swimming Pool. For her performance, Sagnier ended up with a total of six award nominations for her acting abilities. Swimming Pool is a great example of how far Sagnier had come as an actress. She still retains the comedic forms of her profile, but by this point in her career she had learned how to act well in dramas and was able to balance the two effectively. Although it is not clear at the start, Julie is a very haunted character, and the way it organically flows throughout the film makes the trauma very believable.

Swimming Pool is directed by François Ozon, who through his highly acclaimed films is regarded as one of the more important directors in the French New Wave movement. For reference, the French New Wave films generally rejected traditional filmmaking conventions and were very experimental, especially with their visual style and editing. Also, the films tend to engage with the social and political upheavals of the era. Ozon had been working since 1988, but it took until 1998 for his first non-short film to be released. His early works were mostly documentary shorts, one such was Jospin s’éclaire (1995), which detailed the presidential campaign of Lionel Jospin in 1995. The first feature length film he directed was the 1998 piece, Sitcom. Meant to be a satire about most American sitcoms, the film shows the degradation of a traditional family over the course of short amount of time. It is a very surreal film that features one of the main characters eating a rat, then turning into one himself. The next film of note came in 2002, one we’ve already covered, 8 Women. Much like Sagnier, Ozon found himself on the winning end of award season due to this movie. After receiving eight nominations, Ozon walked away with two wins, one for Best Director at the Lumières Awards and a win for Berliner Morgenpost Readers’ Jury Award from the Berlin International Film Festival. From 1999-2016, Ozon released a total of eighteen movies, with sixteen of them at least earning one nomination for filmmaking. When it came to Swimming Pool, Ozon sought out to create a film that showcased how difficult it can be to write a novel or screenplay. Personally, as someone who writes at least part-time, I feel the depiction given in the film is accurate. The anxiety that Rampling feels oozes off the screen, and the frustration is evident with every short and curt response she gives.

As previously stated, the film stars Rampling and Sagnier as Sarah Morton and Julie. The film begins with Sarah discussing her future plans with her publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance, of Tywin Lannister fame). Sarah, suffering from writer’s block, is offered a stay at John’s vacation home in southeast France. All seems well for the first couple of days as Sarah settles in and begins writing her novel. However, when Julie is introduced Sarah is forced to resort to earplugs and avoiding Julie whenever possible to attain the peace she needs to write. After a few weeks though, the numerous one-night-stands and late night parties become somewhat of a fascination to Sarah, and she begins a voyeuristic lifestyle with them. The film starts to take a turn when Julie and Sarah are both interested in the same man, Franck, a local waiter. Sarah becomes so distraught that he is not interested in him that she throws a rock over her balcony and into their swimming pool. It is revealed that while Franck tried to leave Julie, she bludgeoned him to death and his body in the shed. Sarah promises to protect her and will help cover up the murder. The ending to the film is supposed to be ambiguous. Since its release, critics and audience members alike have debated what the meaning behind the ending is, with some questioning whether the character Julie was entirely fictional, meaning that the events of the film were mostly made up.

There are not many films that I can align with my family members, as we have such different tastes that there is rarely ever any overlap. However, this was one of the few films that my brother and I would watch on a frequent basis. There was a time where I could quote entire sections of the film. Overall it is a very slow bubbling film. The action is very repetitive at times but that is intentional, it is meant to wear away at the fabric of Sarah’s sanity. As much as I would love to recommend this film, if you are looking for one with action or more, show not tell, then this film is not for you. It fits that most of the action takes place between the dialogues of two characters, after all this is a film about a writer struggling with writers block. There is a twist that takes place towards the end of the movie that is absolutely gut-wrenching, and is made all the more powerful by the acting of the two leads. In terms of the cinematography, it is fair to have high expectations for Yorick Le Saux, the cinematographer, as he has a lengthy track record of piecing together phenomenal films, so much so that in 2011 Variety listed him as one of the ’10 Cinematographers to Watch.’ Le Saux had worked extensively with Ozon prior to Swimming Pool, so he was already well aware of the style of film Ozon wanted to make and their chemistry shows. There is not a single scene that looks to be out of place, or doesn’t flow seamlessly from one shot to the next.

Overall this is an amazing film to watch. I say that as someone who enjoys critiquing films, as well as someone who was touched by the journey of Sarah. If you’ve ever had any interest on what types of movies accurately depict authorship, then this is a good place to start. With sharp writing, and a keen eye behind the camera, paired with solid acting from everyone involved, Swimming Pool is a must see.
Until next time.

Dennis Campbell is a Circulation Clerk at the Willowick Library.

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