Swimming Pool: Collector's Edition Review
Warning: Since I am attempting a reasonably in-depth analysis of the film, this review contains major spoilers. Those who have not seen the film might prefer to read Kevin O’Reilly’s review of the theatrical release.
Swimming Pool was, for me, quite possibly the most intriguing film of 2003. I spent the bulk of its running time alternating between bored and confused, and then in the final moments had all my previously established expectations and assumptions completely destroyed in an ending that defied all logic. It took me a while, but I gradually began to realize that the film I had seen was actually a lot cleverer than I had initially assumed it to be. The genius of François Ozon’s sizzling little thriller is that it presents itself as a straightforward “A to B” story in its first 90 minutes, only to completely tear apart whatever theories you had about it in the final 5.
Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is a middle-aged and very successful English author, well-known for her “Dorwell” book series, which chronicle the various investigations of an Inspector Morse-type detective. Bored with Dorwell and life in general, Sarah agrees to spend some time at her publisher John Bosload’s (Charles Dance) villa in the south of France. There, she sets to work on a new Dorwell book, appropriately titled “Dorwell on Holiday”. Everything is fine (and boring) until her publisher’s estranged daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), shows up in the middle of the night, and proceeds to wander around topless, bring home various unsavoury men for noisy sex, and generally annoy and appall the very straitlaced Sarah. Gradually, however, Sarah becomes fascinated by Julie’s antics, and the two begin to realize that they are not all that different after all.
Swimming Pool’s pace is slow, painfully so at times. This is especially true of the first twenty minutes, which is so sedate in its pacing that it runs the risk of becoming tedious. In retrospect, this must have been an intentional decision on the part of Ozon: an attempt to show how tedious and routine Sarah’s life is until Julie arrives to shake it up. The on-screen result, though, does little for the film, and I get the impression that a number of people even gave up on it and left within the first Act. This is a real shame, though, and it shows how fickle audiences have become if they are prepared to pass judgement on a film they have not even seen through.
What really makes the film work is the performances of the two leads. Charlotte Rampling, an accomplished actor on both sides of the Channel, is believable as Sarah and manages to make a stereotypical character seem real. At the beginning of the film, you truly believe that she is fed up with life, and the way she changes as the story progresses is believable and interesting. Not one step behind her is Ludivine Sagnier who, far from just being a pretty face, is an extremely talented young actor, who again takes a character that runs the risk of being a cardboard cut-out and breathes life into her. The two have great on-screen chemistry, playing off each other and injecting life into the film, whether they are spitting barbed insults at each other or smoking pot together. It’s quite wonderful to see Sagnier take the initially vapid Julie and transform her into a layered character who displays genuine emotions. Likewise, Rampling’s transformation as Sarah should give hope to middle-aged people who feel that their lives are in a rut!
Philippe Rombi’s slow, soothing score is used sparingly but to great effect. Large portions of the film are without music, but when the theme makes its presence, it manages to evoke tranquility, passion and sadness all at once. Likewise, Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography is restrained and decidedly realistic, yet it has a certain precise style of its own. Characters are continually placed within frames, whether they are doorways, windows or mirrors. The rich greens of rural France and the bright blue of the swimming pool contrast with the more muted interiors and the decidedly desaturated scenes set in England. Ozon knows how to utilize the camera to his advantage, whether he is using negative space to emphasize the emotional distance between characters or simply fawning over Ludivine Sagnier’s body. Incidentally, I was very surprised to discover that Ozon is in fact gay. From the way he photographs his women I would certainly never have guessed it. There is also a myth floating around that Sagnier spends somethng like half the film naked, which is in fact a massive exaggeration. Still, pleasure-seekers will not be disappointed by the amount of skin on display.
It is an odd and altogether depressing fact that virtually every English-speaking country is sexually repressed when compared to most of Europe, especially France. If you need further proof of this, simply compare the certificate the film received in France with the ones it has received in America, Australia and the UK. It is often claimed that the British are obsessed by sex and love reading about it, but are aghast by visual representations of it, so it is very fitting that the prudish Sarah is a writer. (This is neatly commented on in the film with Julie’s fantastic line: “You’re just a frustrated English woman who writes about dirty things but never does them. You can shove your uptight morals up your ass.”) Julie’s inhibitions, however, are only partly sexual. While it is true that she uses her beauty to seduce spectators, her open nudity also represents her desire to appear self-confident and in control. Far from seeming exploitive, the fact that she is frequently topless represents a front that she puts up to mask the insecurity and hurt that lies beneath her bold exterior.
The film can be viewed as a straightforward drama/thriller, but this reading offers no explanation for the baffling conclusion. When I saw the film theatrically, more than one member of the group I was with left the cinema proclaiming the film to be nonsense. Indeed, the subtlety of the double entendres preceding the unabashedly brazen conclusion can make the ending seem tacked on and nonsensical, but on a second viewing the groundwork laid for it becomes much more apparent. Ozon has put a lot of thought into this film, and it is unfortunate that a number of people have only experienced it as a quirky soft-core porno, albeit one with character development. That is a reasonably satisfying reading, and I am certainly not going to disparage pornography (it always personally annoys me when people tear into it as being tasteless and cheap, but are happy to sit through all manner of brainless action movies that dominate the box office), but it makes for an incomplete viewing experience and does not give the film the respect it deserves.
Major spoilers ahead. Final warning.
In my attempt to understand this film, I have read what seems like every possible theory under the sun. Opinions put forward by viewers and critics have ranged from Julie being the ghost of the woman John Bosload had an affair with (the one who died in a car crash, hence the scar on Julie’s stomach), to Julia (the girl who appears at the end of the film) being the result of an incestuous affair between Julie and Bosload (don’t ask me how this works, considering that Julie is only a teenager herself). In my opinion, the most logical, albeit simplistic, scenario is that Julie and all the events that take place in the house in France are the contents of the book Sarah writes while she is there. One very interesting point, which I only noticed after freeze-framing a particular shot by chance, is that the entries in Julie’s diary are written in English despite her being French. Not only that, they also seem to recount portions of conversations the two characters have – perhaps a nod to the fact that they are indeed fabricated by Sarah.
Essentially, Sarah and Julie can be read as the same person, and whether or not she is real, Julie represents a side of Sarah that she has long attempted to repress. Ozon often uses identical shots of the two characters, further implying, regardless of whether or not they are the same person, that deep down they are very similar. It is, however, possible to argue that, far from being the same person, Julie and Sarah are in fact both completely different and repressing their true selves. Sarah is a product of the Swinging Sixties who has set up a frosty and prudish mask, whereas Julie is a sexually liberated woman who is concealing her insecurity and hurt. While Sarah uses her guarded exterior to mask sexual liberation, Julie presents her unabashed sexual openness as a means of hiding or forgetting the fact that she has been deeply hurt at some point. Her varied and sometimes violent sexual encounters can be seen either as her suppressing or embracing the past. Swimming Pool offers no easy answers and I feel that both interpretations are valid.
One idea presented by a lecturer of film studies during the press conference on Disc 2 is that it is in fact Sarah, not Julie who is non-existant. My French is not good enough to understand everything that is being said, by Ozon certainly seems intrigued by the idea and takes it seriously, even if he offers no clues as to whether or not the lecturer is on the right track. Of course another possible answer is that there is no solution to the puzzle: that everything is deliberately nonsensical and open to interpretation. This presents a rather unsatisfying answer, but it is definitely true that human beings are notorious for attempting to find logical explanations for everything, even if the subject in question is illogical. In that respect, it is possible that Ozon’s underlying intention was to trick viewers into speculating about a question that in fact has no answer. If that is true, then Swimming Pool is infuriating, but completely successful.
To sum up, therefore, Swimming Pool is definitely going to appeal to a select group of people, but I would urge sceptics to give it a chance, since there is definitely a lot more going on below the surface (pardon the expression) than is first apparent. The elements of the film don’t all gel together 100% of the time - the film does have a habit of lurching between the character study of a disgruntled middle-aged woman and the celebration of a teenager with an abnormally impressive body - but overall the end result is satisfying, provided you are prepared to do more than take the film at face value.
Swimming Pool is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. In all but one area, the image is spectacular. The colours are alternately vivid and muted, depending on the context of the scene in question. Likewise, black levels are great. The level of entropy is also top-notch, with no discernable detail reduction and only the smallest amount of edge enhancement.
However, the encoding of the DVD leaves a little to be desired. Although daytime scenes are generally fine, the night scenes have a tendency to get a bit blocky. The bit rate does not appear to be high enough to deal with the fine grain of the film, which seems to be more of an issue in the darker scenes than the lighter ones. Initially, I assumed that the inclusion of two DTS mixes had left little room for a decent video bit rate, and an inspection of the disc in a DVD-ROM drive reveals that only 6.24 GB are used on this 9 GB dual-layer disc.
Pathé goes a little overboard here and provides a grand total of four mixes, giving the viewer the option to watch the film in either French or English, with separate Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 varieties of both. Although this is a decidedly French film, it was shot mostly in English with snatches of dialogue in French, so the English tracks are definitely the way to go.
Much like the cinematography, the audio mix is very subtle, never drawing attention to itself. The rears are almost entirely reserved for Philippe Rombi’s score and various environmental background sound effects. In that respect, the inclusion of DTS audio seems a bit pointless, since not once does it sound any different from the Dolby audio.
Important: There are no English subtitles on this release, and although the French dialogue is sparse, it is on occasion amusing and/or relevant to the plot. Therefore, unless you have a reasonable grasp of French, I would highly recommend buying an English-language release of the film instead of this one.
The menu is beautifully designed, incorporating both the theme of Sarah’s laptop computer and the swimming pool after which the film is named. Irritatingly, however, the opening transition is over-long and cannot be skipped.
The French release gets an attractive digipack case with a cardboard slip cover.
Initially, the French release was announced with a commentary featuring Ozon, Rampling and Sagnier. Unfortunately, this has ended up being dropped – a shame, as it would have been fascinating to hear more from these people. Nevertheless, Pathé has put together an acceptable collection of extras for this collector’s edition. However, bear in mind that, apart from the Charlotte Rampling interview, all the bonus material is in French. This will undoubtedly affect whether or not you consider this special edition to be worth the extra cost over the standard editions.
Trailers - Disc 1 houses four trailers: an early teaser, the French theatrical trailer, the English theatrical trailer, and a rather unusual montage that essentially condenses the entire film, surprise ending and all, into 7 minutes. All of these are presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.
All the other extras are on Disc 2.
Deleted scenes - Four deleted scenes are included, with optional commentary by Ozon. None of the scenes are particularly riveting (a large number of them are simply Sarah wandering about or writing), but they may provide some vital clues as to the unraveling of the film’s plot. Of particular interest is a scene of Sarah traveling by train on her way to the villa, where a girl who strongly resembles Ludivine Sagnier (Ozon states that she was played by her sister) is seen talking to a ticket collector. After eavesdropping on their conversation, Sarah proceeds to scribble down some ideas in a notebook – lending further credibility to the idea that Julie is Sarah’s creation. On the other hand, another scene shows, in a rather long-winded way, that without Julie’s presence Sarah is unable to write anything – which would seem to support the theory that Julie is real. The final scene shows a telephone conversation between John and Sarah from John’s point of view, in which they discuss Julie. Ozon says he deleted this because he felt that it destroyed a number of the ambiguities regarding Julie’s presence.
On the commentary, Ozon explains on more than one occasion that most of these scenes were removed because it was taking too long to get to the point at which Julie arrives, something I would tend to agree with.
The deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.
Cannes 2003 footage - This two-minute montage basically just shows various members of the cast and crew arriving at Cannes and posing for photographs.
Press conference footage - By far the most worthwhile inclusion, in my opinion, this 20-minute feature has Ozon, Sagnier and Rampling answering various questions from the press. Some of the questions are bog-standard (for example, asking Ozon about his choice of music in the film), but a few (such as the film studies lecturer mentioned earlier) raise some interesting questions.
Interview with Charlotte Rampling - Rampling answers a few run-of-the-mill questions about the film, what she thinks of the character, working with Ozon and Sagnier, and so on.
Interview with Ludivine Sagnier - Similar to the Rampling interview, only in French, Sagnier answers a fair number of questions about her role and the film, how she prepared physically for the role, how hard it was to film her nude scenes, what it was like to tackle an English-speaking role, and so on. The questions are somewhat generic, but Sagnier attempts to put a more unique spin on them, making the odd joke here and there.
Galleries - Various still images are featured, including photographs of the cast and crew behind the scenes, a number of interesting poster designs, and international poster artwork, most of which are along similar lines, but which differ subtly in terms of composition and colour.
Swimming Pool is a welcome antidote to the testosterone-filled action movies that usually occupy the box office during the summer months. The film won’t be for everyone, and will no doubt annoy the literal thinkers or those who don’t want to have to spend too much time pondering over what they have seen, but for those looking for something a little different, it might just be the ideal movie. The DVD presentation is of a high standard, although this 2-disc edition will be of little use to viewers without at least a rudimentary grasp of French.