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Swimming Pool

French twist

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The interesting young French director François Ozon repeats himself very slightly in Swimming Pool, a slim (if agreeable) trans-cultural character study, masquerading as a thriller, that combines the curious perversity of his Water Drops on Burning Rocks and the morose introspection of Under the Sand, his best film so far.

Swimming Pool revolves around Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling, who starred in Under the Sand) , a middle-aged English authoress, famous for her sexy-cum-bloody mystery thrillers, who's become as staid in her private life as she is popular with her fans. She's creatively blocked when we meet her -- on the Underground, where she tells an admiring reader, "I'm not the person you think I am" -- so her longtime London publisher (Charles Dance) sends her off to his French country home to find inspiration in solitude.

And she does, poised before her laptop, sitting at a spare wooden table, staring at an ugly vase on the dresser. She begins to write copiously, and soon her single-spaced pages grow fat with creation. But her momentum stops in the middle of the night when she hears a noise downstairs: It's Julie (Ludivine Sagnier, of Ozon's Water Drops), her publisher's prodigal daughter, a petulant blonde who smokes too much, leaves dirty dishes on the kitchen table, and has noisy sex each night with a different stray she picks up in the village.

With this premise and these two women, Ozon allows himself to compare the good manners, bad weather and bland food of England with the bon vivance of a scrumptious young French tart, who has breasts like big juicy grapefruits, and a perfectly Gallic fuckez vous attitude. By day Sarah eats big bowls of plain yogurt laced with artificial sweetener, turning up her nose when Julie stocks the fridge. At night she steals into the kitchen for some foie gras and white wine, then refills the bottle with water so Julie won't know she imbibed.

There is, however, more to Sarah -- she was much wilder in her youth -- and as this side of her unfolds, so does a thriller plot, which involves a hunky, 40ish café waiter who captures Sarah's repressed fancy. Naturally, there's what you'd call a "twist" at the end, although -- and I suppose I'm bragging here -- I picked up on it 30 minutes in and nailed it 30 minutes later (the movie ended 30 minutes after that).

Swimming Pool eventually becomes a sort of thematic hall of mirrors: It toys with the idea of art imitating life imitating art, with the generic conventions of literature and cinema, and with Ozon's recurring interest in sexual secrets and inner lives. It's pleasant to watch for its bucolic setting, its cultural reflections and, as always, for Rampling. With her lazy eyes, and her cool thin lips that slip into a deliberate smile, she's unusually deft at peeking out from behind her brittle Englishness. She is, in short, the actress that Tilda Swinton tries to be. In French and English, with subtitles.

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