/

Diving into feminine mystique

by Kaori Shoji

Swimming Pool

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Francois Ozon
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: English
Opens May 15
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Extremely straight or very gay? For me, this has always been a burning question with regard to director Francois Ozon. His latest film is a murder-mystery called “Swimming Pool,” in which the male gaze is quelled and replaced by the female, but their visions remain trained on the same stunning 19-year-old woman, who lounges by a swimming pool in an array of skimpy bikinis. The gaze travels up and down her figure, charged with fascination, envy and lust (emphasis on the lust).

In one scene, Ozon’s camera lingers for what seems like an eternity on the rise and fall of the girl’s voluptuous chest as she sleeps, then cuts briefly to the seemingly impassive face of the middle-aged woman as she watches her. There is no soundtrack here though I thought I heard a soft swallowing, a furtive gulp of desire and resentment. Whether this emanated from the woman or someone in the audience remains a mystery.

Ozon has always professed his obsession with female sexuality, and his recent works like “8 Women” and “Under the Sand” are showcases for his amazing intuitive powers on this very subject. He gets right under the skin of his female characters and goads them into intimacy with his camera — and under his direction, actresses like Fanny Ardant and Catherine Deneuve seem perversely subservient, as if enjoying the process of being bullied and plied by this man who seems to know everything. (What a rival Ozon would have made for Freud.)

Interestingly, according to Ozon, the male of the species is a mere appendage, a sexual whim, a nostalgic keepsake. Most of the time they’re not even around. In Ozon’s world, women define and complete the landscape while men (the straight ones, anyway) become dispensable at the slightest provocation.

“Swimming Pool” pairs Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier, two of Ozon’s muses, in a tense battle over the rights to a summer-house pool: metaphor for libertine youth and uninhibited sexuality.

Rampling’s character, Sarah Morton (author of best-selling detective novels), is initially at a disadvantage. Overworked and in her late 50s, she has arrived at the house and pool in a state of heavy fatigue. She is there thanks to the kindness of her London publisher (Charles Dance), who has offered the use of his cottage in Provence (“You can unwind, take in the sun and write.”)

Sarah proceeds to focus on the latter, but is distracted by the tantalizing sight of the pool from her window. She frowns. She’s hardly the type to go skinny-dipping and besides, she has work to do.

Then in the middle of the night, Julie (Sagnier), the semi-estranged, half-French daughter of Sarah’s editor, strolls in unannounced. Julie has no qualms about “disrupting” Sarah’s “work routine” by plunging right into all the sinful summertime pleasures, which includes a lot of nude sunning by the pool and having loud sex with a different stranger every night in the living room.

As the hours go by, Sarah’s face darkens with rage and gloom. But soon the writer in her is mesmerized by Julie and her escapades, to the extent that she rifles through the girl’s backpack to get a peek at her diary. Everything about the younger woman becomes raw material for her book, and on her laptop, there’s even a file called Julie.

In the meantime, Sarah surprises herself by doing the unthinkable, such as secretly swilling Julie’s wine straight from the bottle or lying by the pool in a flattering bathing suit. At the local restaurant, Sarah openly flirts with the muscular, mustachioed waiter (Jean-Marie Lamour).

So the scales tip one way or the other, each woman finding different ways to assert her sexuality by the pool. But Sarah’s issues are more complicated: She wishes to be the object of desire — but almost as strongly, she desires to be the lustful male gaze. Sarah is less appalled than aroused when she spies the waiter looking down on Julie as she sleeps on the pool deck, the sun shimmering on her tight, white bikini. His face is a mask of ungratified sexual frenzy and the camera (i.e., Sarah’s vision) stays transfixed on his expression.

At that moment, Sarah’s desire becomes all-encompassing — she wants the waiter, she wants Julie and most of all she wants to become them. The obsession grows and overtakes her in unexpected ways: When she happens upon a discarded pair of Julie’s undies on the garden grass, she can’t help picking it up and taking it back to her own room. But it’s not in Ozon to relegate Sarah to the observer. His greatest achievement is to draw this reawakening of an older woman’s physical desires, to place her matured, more complicated sexuality next to Julie’s youthful, straightforward one and not rob her of any dignity.

In the end, what surfaces is Sarah’s reinvention of herself (and in the process, her prose). Before, she had been a sour, aging writer living with her old father in a depressing London apartment. When an elderly fan once approached her in the subway to ask for an autograph, Sarah had coldly refused: “I’m not the woman you think I am.”

The whole essence of “Swimming Pool” is encapsulated in those words. She needed the pool and a misbehaving French sex kitten to prove their inherent truth.