Whenever Charlotte Rampling narrows her sly cat eyes in a movie, it's always a surprise that anyone walks away unscathed. Famous for her haughty cheekbones and a body that directors love to film unclothed, the British actress has built a screen persona playing intimidating, outwardly unattainable women. Her characters look dangerous, but theirs is a punishing beauty, since they're often the kind of women men love to cut down to size, the kind that no less than Paul Newman once threw his fist into in "The Verdict."
Getting socked in the kisser by a Hollywood icon might have remained the flash point of a spotty cinematic career filled with decorous humiliation. (If nothing else, it helped eclipse the ignominy of Rampling's role as a concentration camp survivor engaged in sadomasochistic games with her former guard in "The Night Porter.") Then two years ago, French filmmaker Francois Ozon cast the actress in "Under the Sand" as a woman who, after her husband mysteriously disappears, hauntingly does the same.
The film brought out the finest in the director and the actress, and it prompted another collaboration with "Swimming Pool," in which Rampling plays against erotic type as a repressed English mystery novelist named Sarah Morton.
Author of a series of popular easy-reading mysteries beloved by matronly types and her publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance), Sarah isn't resting easily on her laurels. Snappish and needy, frumpy and resolutely unadorned, she enters the story rebuffing a fan and mounting a ferocious assault on Bosload's office. She expertly fillets one of the publisher's younger bestselling writers and complains that Bosload no longer takes care of her, coming across like the abandoned lover she very well may be. Sensing a catastrophe or, worse, a revenue slowdown, the publisher suggests that she decamp to his house in the south of France where she can find inspirational peace of mind. Sarah accepts, her face brightening when he floats a vague promise to visit.
Leaving London and her even grayer elderly father behind, Sarah sets up residence in Bosload's villa, plugs in her laptop and settles into a solitary tranquillity that proves short-lived. Unknown to her father and his guest, Bosload's French daughter, Julie (a fine Ludivine Sagnier), has also decided to spend time at the house.
True to prickly form, Sarah greets the younger woman as an interloper, setting the stage for a battle of wills and bad manners. At first, the pair's antipathy follows an almost comically familiar course, with Julie embodying a compendium of irritating habits that seem calculated to send Sarah into spiraling fury. But, although Sarah reacts with predictable irritation when Julie rattles the walls with her music, something unexpected happens when they begin shaking from bouts of late-night coitus.
Written, like "Under the Sand," by Ozon with novelist Emmanuele Bernheim, "Swimming Pool" begins as one kind of film then stealthily mutates into something else.
Once Julie begins clomping around the villa and dipping into its pool, Sarah doesn't just lose her temper, she loses her equanimity. As if in a trance, Sarah stares at the intruder's inflatable red raft, which lies next to the pool like a stain, and winces at the refrigerator Julie stocks with fattening cheese and meat. Indolently brandishing her naked body and, with greater calculation, flaunting her various conquests (one of whom parades about in unspeakably snug briefs), Julie embodies everything the older woman is not. Blond and bronzed and ripe, the younger woman is hungry for men, love, life. And Sarah? She's ravenous.
Like "Under the Sun," Ozon's latest film is about a woman whose identity seems shaped by others. Sarah brushes off her fan by saying "I'm not the person you think I am" -- but watching the writer battle through life, it's hard to know who she is.
Ozon based the character on mystery writers such as the late Patricia Highsmith, who wrote "Strangers on a Train," which Hitchcock later turned into a film. "Swimming Pool" shares the other story's theme of doppelgangers and sexual dread, but Ozon never gets his hooks into why this woman has withdrawn from the world. For him, Sarah is the artist as vampire, in need of rejuvenating young flesh and blood; the idea that she may have needed to abandon some sense of self to compete with men never crosses his mind.
Ozon misses some chances with Sarah, but Rampling doesn't skip a beat. Freed from the burden of likability, the actress pushes the character from near-farce to near-tragedy, without once appealing to sentimentalism. Even when Ozon almost blows the film's ending with a tidy psychological explanation, Rampling hangs onto ambiguity as firmly as she did in "Under the Sand."