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Essays & Reviews

The Deep End of The Swimming Pool

At last, a summer movie I really liked -- and not just for the air conditioning in the theater! Director Francois Ozon's The Swimming Pool is much deeper than its critics and even its director seem to realize. Of course, reading an interview with Ozon about it, you get a banal explanation that's enough to turn anybody off the film (French men; what can I say?).

He says his movie is about how an uptight, latently lesbian, blocked mystery-writer is lured into a wild sex-kitten's swimming pool of sensuality and so releases her own repressed sexual self into renewed creative energy. Ozon's answers simplify the heroine's motives and actions and reduce them to adjuncts to her crotch (which she does indeed offer to a suitably dazed male toward the end of the film, but -- read on). Ozon says that this moment is the climax of creative release that the story has been moving toward all along, by way of lots of shots of bare female breasts, buttocks, etc.

If Ozon is right in saying that all he tried for was another version of the woman-fucked-to-life story so beloved of male storytellers since time immemorial, then the gleam of humor, of affectionate self-mockery, of sly maneuvering that the protagonist, Sarah, gives off (even at that "climactic" moment) must come from some much cleverer, more ambitious source: like Charlotte Rampling herself, who plays Sarah.

Or maybe it comes from me, Suzy the writer, seeing what shouldn't be there but is all the same. See the movie yourself, then you be the judge.

This is your spoiler warning: I am going to talk about what appears to happen and what I think really happens in this film. If you want to encounter The Swimming Pool without my reading of it clouding your mind, then go no further.

Okay, here's our heroine, an English mystery author named Sarah Morton: middle-aged, unmarried, a bit of a sourpuss, rude to her fans, grumpy with her editor (who is also her lover, or has been in the past), burnt out on the detective series that has made her rich and famous. (All of this adds up to her being "mannish", says M. Ozon; as if entirely un-mannish, heterosexual French women are never middle-aged, unmarried, rude or sour -- Jeez, has he visited France lately, this guy? To nail emphasize his point (as it were), he dresses her consistently in nice, sporty slacks; GOD, how perverse can you get?

Anyway, here's London editor John (Charles Dance), sending her to his French villa to get away from it all and refresh her creative wellsprings, possibly by turning her hand to something completely unlike anything she's written before, as he suggests.

So, she does.

First she wanders about, relaxing in the sun and solitude, for a good deal too long, and begins a few pages of work. This slightly dragged-out, prosaic preamble establishes her as an honest-to-God author and demonstrates the placid uneventfulness of a writer's normal working life.

Then, bam! it's all smashed to bits by the sudden arrival of a sulky, sex-mad young woman, the editor's daughter Julie, who goes on to create increasingly outrageous and bizarre distractions while Sarah tries to write. At length, Sarah allows herself to be drawn into the wild goings-on in search of more insight into Julie, whom she has begun using as a character in the new novel. Sarah goes so far as to help cover up an impulsive murder committed by the girl, and then screws the ancient gardener to distract him from discovering the body that the two women have buried together.

Julie heads south. Sarah, new manuscript completed in an absurdly short time, goes home to London.

We see her eliciting from editor John the fact that he doesn't like the new work; it's too "psychological", he says. Smiling, she informs him that she has found another publisher for it who thinks it's just nifty, and she hands him bound galleys of "The Swimming Pool" and serenely sails off to resume writing the detective series she was so fed up with at the outset of the movie.

Leaving his office, she passes the editor's daughter who's on her way in to see dad -- and lo, it isn't the spoiled, pouty-mouthed siren of the French villa at all, but an ordinary teenager with braces on her teeth. To both this garden-variety adolescent and her bad-girl alter-ego the author waves affectionate farewell in a nostalgic recollection of the villa that obviously takes place only in Sarah's mind.

Huh? If this kid with the braces is Julie, who was that other Julie, Julie-of-the-villa? Why is Sarah happy, and why is John glum and confused?

This is what I think: Sarah's new book, and the inspiration for that book, and the writing of that book, is the movie itself: what we are seeing is hardly anything of reality, but a great deal of the writer's imagination at work. The Swimming Pool is also a clever, if bloodless, revenge story.

Here's what really happens:

Sarah is burnt out and blocked, all right, but her bad mood has more to do with the fact that her editor no longer shows her the personal attention he once did. John is neglecting her, using the warmth of his regard to help bring along newer writers now that Sarah is an established moneymaker for him. In the opening scenes in his office he's impatient with her, and though he promises to come see her while she's staying at his French house, once she gets there he starts making excuses not to come. Pretty soon he won't even take her phone calls from France.

And so: she takes a writer's revenge. She writes a book at the villa all right, and it's something new: not a detective story but an anti-detective story (hence the crime that the heroine prevents from being discovered). The book is built around John's house, and around his daughter, Julie.

Ah -- but no, not his daughter at all -- not the real kid with the braces we see at the end, but the novelist's extreme, distorted idea of what John's daughter would be like if John were a much nastier person, not just a normally selfish, insensitive businessman. Julie is a fictional character designed to force a story out of Sarah's stay at the villa. Everything that "happens" at the villa, from Julie's arrival on, is made up in Sarah's storytelling mind to be part of her novel-in-progress, including whatever outrageous transformations and reversals she can think of to heighten the drama.

Julie goes from pouty, self-destructive vamp to victim-child of a rejecting father (an obvious falsehood, when we see how Real John and Real Julie interact at the end); to impulsive, sex-mad murderer; to hallucinating, helpless waif; to subdued co-conspirator; to doe-eyed friend and daughter to Sarah; to generous collaborator, via the gift to Sarah of a manuscript supposedly written by Julie's dead (or not dead) mother.

T Author Sarah experiments with fictional Julie's sexuality: the first man Julie brings home for a night of wild sex is a homely young doofus with an incipient paunch; then comes a louche, dark, gangster-movie type -- no, not interesting enough. Finally there's Frank, the hunky local waiter, who dances with Sarah but gets killed by Julie for not allowing her to finish a blow job on him (yeah, right). Frank actually has his origins in a real person whom Sarah has met -- the waiter at the cafe that author Sarah frequents while staying at the villa.

Poor Marcel, a courteous village elder, suffers a similar transformation. First he drives Sarah to the villa and politely hands over the keys. He then graduates to servicing the pool as a sort of regular hand around the grounds, a touch of maleness to stir up the women a little. Then he's a cartoon of the rough, weathered country man, an aged Mellors the gamekeeper, all sweat and hair, so that author Sarah can play a rueful joke on her fictional self: although hunky Frank dances with fictional Sarah and clearly would welcome more interaction, it's to creaky-kneed but earthy Marcel that Sarah (in the story) offers herself -- what do you think that little smile is about when she's lying on that bed with no clothes on?

She's telling us, "Hey, I know I'm no great beauty (and she's not, as presented in this film, being "mannish" and all) and can't compete with Julie for hunky Frank, but damned if I won't have my fictional self get some guy into bed!"

The book that author Sarah is writing -- the movie we are seeing -- is what restores her vitality and her joy, not an actual immersion in sex and sensuality. Her new novel is a freewheeling exercise in loopy thrillerdom, all wild invention and loose ends.

What about Julie's mom's manuscript, supposedly burnt up by evil John but suddenly appearing, rescued by Julie after all? It's just a Gothic tease; we never even find out what's in it, let alone why John tried to burn it, or how Sarah uses it in her own work (although we see her apparently doing so). The half-baked, careless inventiveness is all part of Sarah's creative process, and part of the joke on John.

Author Sarah writes mysteries, good ones, but once freed from the strictures of the detective-novel form she goes to town in her new story with increasing satire and off-the-wall imagination of a kind that she could never put into one of her "Inspector Dorwell" mysteries.

Again, once Frank has disappeared and Sarah starts looking for him, she cranks back the cover that has mysteriously been spread again over the swimming pool (why? By whom? We don't find out, and it doesn't matter), fearful of finding Frank's corpse floating in the water. Instead, Julie's red water-float is disclosed there -- for no reason. It's a satirical homage to the genre of film thrillers in which a corpse is discovered "hidden" in the water (most chillingly, Alain Delon's Purple Noon).

Another careless incongruity: fictional Julie bashes Frank's head in with at least four blows of a large chunk of rough concrete, but all Sarah finds in the morning are a few drops of blood. And how on earth did mixie little Julie manage to move the considerable heft of dead Frank from poolside into the back of a metal storage shed, all by herself, in the dead of night, and leaving no trace?

Well, this is a thriller author Sarah is indulging in, not a police procedural: let the chips, and the blood-drops, fall where they may -- or not, who cares?

When Marcel, summoned to cut the grass, immediately walks over to the secret gravesite and starts examining it, how does being invited into bed by fictional Sarah alter the fact that he is suspicious about that patch of disturbed soil? It's just the B-movie convention that all males are so stupid that anything at all can be erased from not just their attention but from their memory by half an hour or so of gratuitous sex.

It's all increasingly unbelievable, broad, satirical play -- author Sarah experimenting with the freedom of a different form of fiction. Consider what Sarah finds when she goes looking for Marcel after the murder: Marcel's daughter turns out to be a prematurely aged child who tells Sarah, in an inexplicably sinister manner, that Julie's mother is not living in Nice as Julie has said, but has been mysteriously dead these many years. It's sheer nonsense, never integrated into the "plot", never apposite to anything -- a Daphne du Maurier curlicue, for fun and homage to a great mistress of the form.

But this is, in fact, how a writer's mind works: something in reality or in someone else's fiction piques your imagination and you adopt it and make it yours by taking it and running with it, trying different approaches, making wild guesses and changes to suit your own story, and adding more elements (also taken from art and reality and altered to suit) as you go along, to keep the pot boiling.

In other words, you play. At its best, for the creative person, that's what making art is: inspired play. That's what cures an artist's doldrums and starts the creative juices flowing again, particularly when she's been locked for years into a potentially arid form like the English police procedural.

Moreover, Sarah fictionalizes herself as literally "playing" both detective (searching for vanished Frank) and master criminal (successfully hiding his body and colluding with Julie in erasing the crime). Her exuberantly cranked-up fable of steamy sex, mayhem up at the villa, and unlikely female bonding and conspiracy across type and generation isn't bad, for a thriller, just untidy in the execution (as it were), and why not? It's the first time she's written so freely and joyfully in a very long time.

Then she goes home and hands the real, neglectful John the results -- an over-the-top, satirical stab at his own family relations with a version of Sarah herself as triumphant protagonist. The people and events are so removed and changed from the reality John knows that he can't quite recognize them, but he knows there's something here that he doesn't like, something personal -- which "his" author has gone and gotten published elsewhre, what's more.

And that, my friends, is the writer's revenge completed -- and the secret of author Sarah's glowing smile of satisfaction as she leaves, pausing to give an imaginary hail and farewell to both the real Julie, whom she has glimpsed just now on her way in to see Dad, and her own fictional version of Julie, wild young muse and counterfoil to the fictional Sarah of the new novel.

There, now; isn't that a better story than the threadbare masculinist fantasy of the repressed female artist regaining her stalled creativity by getting herself fucked? Why be content with such simple-minded crap, when you can have a subtle, self-aware, rueful detailing of the creative process itself, a demonstration of how freewheeling, inventive playfulness uses tame reality as its springboard to fantasy?

I think Ozon saw this possibility -- otherwise he wouldn't have thrown in that last glimpse of the daughter as both real and fictional, with Sarah -- but couldn't bring himself to trust it, or to trust his audiences to catch on; so he clings to the standard macho B.S. about the magic penis conferring creativity on the dried up female writer.

Fortunately for us, he's done better than that, and apparently much better than he knew at the time -- a not uncommon fate for artists, and, in fact, one all creative people hope for, in our heart of hearts.

SMC, 2003