Director: François Ozon. Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance, Jean-Marie Lamour, Marc Fayolle, Mireille Mossé. Screenplay: François Ozon and Emmanuèle Bernheim.
If world cinema were a high-school class, François Ozon is the director you would least want to have sitting behind you at exam time, his neck craning over your shoulder, his wandering eyes searching for someone else’s idea. This would be especially true if your name were Hitchcock, Fassbinder, Almodóvar, or Lynch, who are pervasive influences across his work. He has also been known to swipe concepts, themes, and visual signatures from Antonioni (viz. Charlotte Rampling’s personal avventura in Under the Sand, almost certainly the director’s best work) and Sirk (a widely-cited inspiration for 8 Women, though very little outside the opening shot recalls the director’s work). Ozon even steals from himself. Entire sequences in his new picture, Swimming Pool, are lifted from his past portfolio; the discovery of a dead body in a shed is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of a climactic interlude in his 1997 shocker See the Sea. The headlining presence of Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier, one or the other of whom has appeared in all three of Ozon’s most recent pictures, also feels a bit like recycling, or at least like a rather conservative adherence to successful formulas of the past.
None of this is to say that Swimming Pool isn’t a good yarn, or that it doesn’t suffice as entertainment for the eggheady, Europhile arthouse audience to whom Focus Features is rather successfully selling it. The film hovers somewhere among three genres, which are interbraided throughout but successively dominate the first, second, and third acts of the film: a two-character psychology study suddenly evolves into a two-character mystery, which in turn changes shape into a metatextual contemplation of truth, fiction, and desire. Whatever ingenuity Swimming Pool has as a guessing game results not from the most literal questions and answers of the plothas a murder been committed? By whom? Will it be discovered?but from the atmospheric way the film keeps implying a mystery even when none seems afoot. Well before the question of murder arises, Ozon’s film is already perfumed with a kind of sensual unease: noises-off, shots that endure too long, small actions (eating, typing, unfolding a lawn chair) that seem to attract more screen time than they warrant. Even what feels initially like a dull reliance on cliché in the central characterizations starts to appear teasing, slippery, untrustworthy. Surely Ozon hasn’t presented us with yet another English, spinsterish mystery-writer who becomes a sleuth in her own life, or yet another slatternly French teenager who gobbles pâté and suntans her breasts in between erotic bouts with big-bellied men, without at some level mocking the over-obviousness of the contrasts?
As with much else about Swimming Pool, the obvious point of reference is Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The blond/brunette, happy/tragic, perky/private oppositions between the Naomi Watts and Laura Harring characters deepened that film’s mystery rather than abating it, because the film felt somehow simultaneously illegible and too legible. Lynch has always trafficked impeccably in the weird collisions between pure archetype and utter anomaly, and Ozon attempts a similar thing here with his high-strung brunette, his blonde nymphet, and the uncanny experiences they share. In other words, this isn’t a new trick, but it’s still a seductive technique; you can see why Ozon would want to copy it. And because Ozon follows Lynch’s example, too, in making the surfaces and compositions of Swimming Pool as lustrous as possible, the mystery inheres as much in the film’s form as in its narrative. Godard, another muse to both directors, famously said that the sanguine climax of his film Weekend was not about blood, but about the color red. In a similar way, Mulholland Drive and Swimming Pool feel so visually saturated that their own voluptuousness become forces and enigmas in their own right. Is Swimming Pool a movie about strange incidents that transpire around a blue pool, or a movie about how the ethereal blueness of a pool prompts people to do strange things? It’s impossible to answer this question, which helps keep the film vibrant and open-ended for a good portion of its running time.
In fact, if Swimming Pool were only an above-average entertainment made possible by the genius of its predecessors, it would be a little less galling and off-putting than it ultimately turns out to be. Plenty of films and filmmakers have walked their paths in borrowed shoes, and in a year that has yet to produce a single great movie, a really good knockoff wouldn’t be a bad thing. But eventually, Ozon’s compulsion to imitate becomes an end in itself, taking his movie in directions it hasn’t been built to travel. Right around the time Rampling encounters a black-garbed, gray-haired dwarf whose relevance to the plot is all but nil, the echoes of Lynch become both unmistakable and unproductive. The film switches from a story where inchoate mystery pervaded every detail to a mystery which, as related to the audience, is radically unsolvable. This is not the same thing, and it must be handled with a very assured hand, indeed, in order to work. The reason Mulholland Drive triumphs in pulling a similar switcheroo is because Lynch grounds the entire film in the annihilating, ironic power of desire and desperation. “Rita’s” amnesia is the cause of her and Betty’s concern, and yet Betty herself is hell-bent on submerging her own self so as to profitably impersonate others, in an industry where people are paid to dissemble; later, in the film’s second frame of reality, Diane’s very existence depends on the elimination of the woman she desires, but when this elimination is accomplished, she can’t live with that, either. Desire, as represented in concepts like “identity” and “truth,” is inherently unreachable, irresolvable.
By contrast, though, to the complex emotions and the high dramatic stakes of Lynch’s film, Swimming Pool feels much too light too support the momentous riddles and uncertainties Ozon foists on the movie near its end. Rather than fusing his characters in a cycle of dependence and resentment, as Lynch does, Ozon constructs the two women more simply as opposites who attract, sort of. They inspire each other’s curiosity, and frequently spark each other’s ire, but nothing in Swimming Pool feels remotely as though the characters’ lives depend on what happens, or when, or how. Conceived this way, the bond between these women isn’t nearly enough to drive the movie, and for all the conflict Ozon superficially mounts between Rampling and Sagnier, the narrative’s point of crisis only arrives through the introduction of second-tier characters that, in and of themselves, interest neither the audience nor the filmmaker. These supporting players are on-screen simply so they might later be offscreen, so that we and the two women might get to wondering where they’ve gone to. By the picture’s final moments, where all-new faces are introduced, and incompatible shots unsettle our belief in the “truth” of what has preceded, Ozon seems to have abandoned any specific design in his story in order to adopt an all-encompassing skepticism that affords neither pleasure nor insight to the audience. Our fervor to know what has “really” happened is severely, even fatally compromised by the fact that none of the competing scenarios holds any inherent interest.
Herein lies a problem in Ozon’s filmmaking that is increasingly thwarting his pictures and, at least in my case, alienating viewers who might otherwise be sympathetic to his genuine, if imitative, gifts. See the Sea, like Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur!/Fat Girl, elaborates a fascinating interpersonal drama for almost an hour before resorting in the closing moments to a form of violence so extreme that it nihilistically voids our interest in all that has preceded. Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Ozon’s 1999 filmization of a Fassbinder playscript, treats its characters with an arch, flattening theatricality that could not be further from the stylized naturalism of Fassbinder’s own domestic fables, like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul or Fox and His Friends; the final product, a tiresome cycle through all the possible erotic permutations in a cast of four nitwits, plays much closer to Greenaway’s 8½ Women than to anything Ozon, much less Fassbinder, could have intended. This tendency toward cruel, joyless formalism only repeated itself in 8 Women, whose very title sounds like the Greenaway debacle, and which pushed uncomfortable-looking actresses like Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux through poses and set-pieces that had absolutely zero emotional marrow.
In other words, Ozon has quickly made an auteurist name for himself by making movies that have little to distinguish them beyond the sheer insistent auteurishness of their conceptions. It is impossible to watch 8 Women as anything but the overdetermined, fetishizing work of a director who believes in Directing and would like to get himself noticed. Meanwhile, all the swipings (he’d probably call them “citations”) from Lynch, Sirk, Fassbinder, and the others bear so little payoff in terms of insight, commentary, wit, or entertainment that one starts to imagine Ozon stealing from better artists merely as a desperate, cynical, and limited strategy for being counted among them. An Ozon film might be Lynchian or Hitchcockian, and may evenas Swimming Pool doesperform an adequate approximation of those models for at least a while. But it’s impossible to imagine a film one might call Ozonian, because his movies have stopped being anything but hermetic reflections of the works that have inspired him. Swimming Pool is fine for a summer diversion, but the more this film and filmmaker strain to be deep, the shallower they seem. B