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Pooling Her Resorts: Ludivine Sagnier soaks up some rays in the south of France in the thriller 'Swimming Pool.'

Water World

François Ozon's 'Swimming Pool' pits a reserved older woman against a promiscuous playgirl

By Richard von Busack

ON THE LONDON SUBWAY, the middle-level mystery novelist Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is recognized by a fan, but she plays dumb. "I'm not the person you think I am," she says, instead of a more precise "You must be mistaken," as a way of showing us what dissatisfaction seethes within her. Swimming Pool begins with Morton arriving at the office of her publisher (veteran cad Charles Dance), with hurt feelings, worried about being a second-rater bypassed by younger, sharper authors.

In a few minutes, these passages tell more about the professional writer's life than the entirety of Alex and Emma. Morton heads to the south of France with her laptop as a companion, full of good intentions and ready to begin working on her newest novel. At first, every prospect pleases, and director François Ozon works the traditional vacation-movie images: chic, middle-aged woman shopping for a Spartan meal at a village market or ordering a dainty repast under the plane trees at the village's one and only cafe.

But one night, an amoral little blonde named Julie arrives; she's the publisher's daughter. Julie is played by Ozon regular Ludivine Sagnier (of Water Drops on Burning Rocks). The girl starts partying and won't stop, punishing Morton's supply of Ballantine's and bringing home a different man every night. Topless and proud of it, she opposes Morton's rigid sexlessness. This sensuality upsets Morton on a number of levels. In a piece of Tennessee Williams-vintage symbolism, the elder lady refers to the pool as "a cesspool of living bacteria," merely because it has a bushel of pretty Douglas Sirk-colored fallen leaves floating on the surface.

Despite the Odd Couple scenes of warring over sloppiness and horndog boyfriends, the older woman and the young woman become friends: "I was around in swinging London," Morton offers, before doing a dork-dance worthy of Elaine Benes. As Morton studies the younger girl, we're unsure where professional curiosity ends and where an unhealthier fascination begins. Soon, this unstable girl involves Morton in the kind of murder she only writes about. When you consider how much well-photographed dreck there is around these days, it's a pity that Ozon couldn't get more fervent photography for his all-girl summer fun movie than the kind his cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers. The sensuality of Sagnier's body is more expressive than her acting ability.

Rampling, to whom Ozon seems to dedicate himself, pays off again. Imagine this leonine actress in the Virginia Woolf role in The Hours. If you're as dedicated to slice-of-cake entertainment as Ozon is, it's a benefit to have Rampling involved to nail down the various conceits. Still, as in Ozon's previous Rampling vehicle, Under the Sands, the weak plotting is a liability. He needs to start buying scripts. The audience wanders out, shocked at the lack of a hook or twist. I don't want to be more specific than that. If I've blown the ending, I apologize; if I'd written an ending like the one Ozon uses here, I'd apologize even harder.

Swimming Pool (R; 102 min.), directed by François Ozon, written by Emmanuéle Bernheim and Ozon, photographed by Yorick Le Saux and starring charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier and Charles Dance, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose and the Guild in Menlo Park.

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Web extra to the July 10-16, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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