One of the enduring concerns of human culture is how to deal with thoughts and feelings that are not recognisably our own.
Much like the ancients, who associated odd feelings and passing moods with particular deities, Saint Augustine viewed unwelcome thoughts as something external to the self. According to Augustine, our urge to transgress God’s laws stems from a wound inflicted by Original Sin and passed down through the generations by sexual contact. Later churchmen would describe the concept of Original Sin as:
“Privation of the righteousness which every man ought to possess”
Inspired by the Augustinian concept of Concupiscence but intent upon creating a materialistic account of human nature, Sigmund Freud divided the self into different parts and invoked the concept of the unconscious as a place where unspeakable thoughts and desires boil and occasionally rise up, hammering at the walls of the conscious self. Though no longer central to scientific accounts of human nature, Freud’s account of the self remains incredibly influential. Artists and mental health professionals conspire to present the mind as a city under constant pressure from a vast and barely manageable neurochemical hinterland where entire streets pass in and out of the surrounding jungle. The question of how we navigate such a city, where we draw the line between town and country, ours and not-ours not only endures to this day but also accounts for many of the most striking literary and philosophical innovations of the 20th Century.
Like many psychological thrillers, Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool follows a character’s attempt to repress, confront and ultimately claim ownership of a series of unwelcome and unrecognisable thoughts, but as sophisticated as the film’s distinctions may be, it is never entirely clear where the film’s main protagonist begins and ends.
The film revolves around Charlotte Rampling’s Sarah who, despite being a successful writer of mystery novels that appear to be loved by everyone’s mum, finds herself devoid of both joy and inspiration. Jealous of the attention paid to others and yet openly disdainful of the things they do to receive said attention, Sarah is a picture of unspoken and unspecified angst. Sensing that his cash cow is reaching burnout, Sarah’s editor offers her the use of his house in the South of France.
Rampling’s Sarah is best described as a creation so worthy of Anita Brookner that Ozon might as well have approached Brookner and asked her to play the part herself. Best known for her Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac, Brookner has made a career out of writing novels about characters like Sarah; Small, unobtrusive people who observe all the fun that happy extroverted people are having with a combination of ice-cold jealousy and burning hatred. Brookner’s characters are quick to recognise the fact that they have the same desires as happy extroverted people but the existence of happy extroverts that are far more skilled at extracting pleasure from the world means that the small unobtrusive people are forever denied what it is they want. Thus, the happy extroverted people represent not only what the small unobtrusive people cannot have, but also what it is that they hate most about themselves.
Sarah is just as thin-lipped and self-denying as the protagonist of Hotel du Lac. Once in France she eats nothing but low-fat yoghurt, drinks nothing but tea and never goes outside without being covered from head to toe. This is the person Sarah is and she isn’t going to change for anyone but those Brooknerian tensions are there, hammering at the walls of her self and just looking for a way to work themselves free.
The catalyst comes in the form of Ludivine Sagnier’s Julie, a beautiful young French woman who turns up unexpectedly and introduces herself as the daughter of Sarah’s editor. As disruptive as Julie’s guileless extroversion, unapologetic sexuality and voracious hunger for drink, drugs and food may be to Sarah’s plans for a quiet writing holiday, Sarah can never quite bring herself to either ignore or hate the younger woman.
Ozon lays out the basis for Sarah’s obsession in a rather on-the-nose scene in which a half-naked Julie invites Sarah to use the house’s swimming pool. However, while Julie is happy to dive in and swim around, Sarah complains that the water is dirty and filled with bacteria to which Julie simply shrugs and says that she prefers the size and turbulence of the ocean. I say that this scene is on-the-nose as it is rather too obvious that the pool is meant to represent all of those pleasures that sustain Julie but which Sarah studiously denies herself. In true Brooknerian style, Sarah is repulsed by Julie and drawn to her in equal measure. Julie’s enjoyment of loud sex, good food and joyous phone calls undoubtedly make it harder for Sarah to enjoy her own meagre pleasures but it also serves to make those Big Neon Pleasures seem just that little bit more accessible.
As transparent as the symbolic and thematic parameters of Sarah’s relationship with Julie might be, the actual physical reality of that relationship is somewhat harder to fathom.
Initially, Ozon suggests that Julie might be serving as a sort of emotional solvent, dissolving Sarah’s emotional blockages and encouraging her to eat real food, experiment with drugs and slowly get back in touch with her own sexuality. However, the more the film progresses, the more Ozon begins to suggest that Julie might not actually be a real person.
The first clue is that while Julie brings a series of men back to the house in order to have sex, none of the men she chooses to bring home are what you would call attractive. The first is a pear-shaped man in improbably underpants and lank hair while the second is a man old enough to be her father who dresses like a leather daddy. People who have seen Ozon’s much later film Jeune et Jolie might recognise the combination of beautiful young woman and unattractive man and leap to the conclusion that Julie is all about meaningless sex with undemanding partners but I could not help wondering whether these might not actually be men that Sarah had herself brought home. This hypothesis lead me to consider the possibility that Julie might be Sarah’s very own Tyler Durden, an attempt to deal with uncharacteristic thoughts and feelings by projecting them onto an imaginary character whose distinct identity would allow Sarah to maintain her own self-image as a woman of small desires. This interpretation may account for the shocking events that happen in the film’s final act but it does not explain the amount of narrative detritus scattered across the foreground of Ozon’s film.
Swimming Pool is a film that is just as abstemious as its central character. Shot almost entirely in and around a single house in the French countryside, the plot involves nothing but two main female characters and three male supporting characters whose involvement in the plot is so minimal that the film would have no chance of passing an inverted Bechdel test. Ozon lays his thematic cards on the table so quickly that there is simply no need for extraneous characters or complicated backstories: This film is all about the relationship between a repressed English novelist and an emotionally incontinent French teenager.
As soon as Ozon introduces us to the character of Julie, he begins hinting that she might be the product of some unhappy marriage or long-forgotten tryst involving the editor played by Charles Dance. However, while this backstory fleshes out Julie’s character, it is almost entirely irrelevant to her relationship with Sarah. In order for the film to work, we no more need to know about Julie’s parents than we do about Sarah’s: It does not matter why these women are the way they are, what is important is that we understand what they are and how they relate to each other.
Later in the film, Ozon includes a series of very odd scenes in which Sarah takes it upon herself to root through Julie’s belongings and read her diary. Ozon never lots on what Sarah learns from Julie’s diary but Sarah’s moment of covert discovery is promptly mirrored in an almost identical scene in which Julie takes it upon herself to root through Sarah’s notes and read everything on her computer. While Ozon uses quick jerky camera movements and up-tempo musical cues to make these scenes feel tense, it is interesting to note that the film never reveals what either woman finds in the other woman’s writings or what impact these discoveries are supposed to have on the plot. The tension that Ozon injects into the scenes is a complete non sequitur.
I use the term ‘narrative detritus’ to describe both Julie’s backstory and the content of Julie’s diary as these elements feel a lot like plot hooks that, though possibly central to a previous draft of the script, no longer serve a purpose. An explanation for the presence of narrative detritus in an otherwise tightly focused script comes in the form of Sarah’s work-in-progress.
Every time there is a major plot development, Sarah scurries back to her typewriter and hammers away. Initially, the film is quite coy about what it is that she is working on as Sarah talks about ‘something different’ only for a shot of her computer desktop to reveal a file marked ‘Dorwell on Holiday’ suggesting that the ‘something different’ in question might involve nothing more than her usual detective character going on holiday to the south of France. However, after a particularly epic argument with Julie, we see Sarah start a new file and the film ends with her submitting a book named Swimming Pool to her bemused publisher.
Ozon’s later film In the House features a failed and embittered writer who is stuck teaching French to a bunch of high school kids. Cynical and detached, the writer’s hopes for a more artistically expressive life only kick in when he encounters a precocious young student who can write the way he always wishes he could write. Though far more baroque and meta-textual of structure than Swimming Pool, In The House shows Ozon’s interest in the artist’s use of the creative process as a means of confronting thoughts and desires that they would otherwise never admit to owning. It is never the author who is racist/sexist/filled with lust for under-aged boys, it is the character that looks, talks and behaves almost exactly like them. Under this interpretation, the film’s second and third act can be understood as the result of Sarah taking inspiration from her environment whilst writing a new sort of book. Radically different to her usual cosy mysteries, Sarah’s new book is as clumsy as it is personal, an attempt to confront and articulate her own feelings that never quite makes sense. Under this interpretation, the film’s narrative detritus is a product of Sarah’s own incompetence at articulating her own feelings. A writer more in touch with herself might have known to focus solely on the relationship with Julie but a struggling Sarah falls back on her mystery writer’s bag of tricks and so burdens her narrative with family secrets, murders and a laughably pointless encounter with a character stolen directly from Daphne Du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” and its cinematic adaptation by Nicolas Roeg.
The film concludes with Sarah’s editor telling her that, for the good of her own career, she should not try to get the book published. Charitable and desperate not to put the wind up one of his most prized cash cows, the editor explains that the book is too subtle for Sarah’s readership but the incoherence of the film’s narrative suggest that the book must be a complete and total mess; a half-formed and self-indulgent meditation on repressed sexuality afflicted by unnecessary sub-plots and crippled by the author’s difficulties coming to terms with what she wants and who she wants to be. Indeed, if we could take the substance and ambiguities of Swimming Pool and boil them down to a single point then it would be that no amount of literary or philosophical sophistication can help someone to articulate and deal with unwanted feelings when the person experiencing those feelings cannot decide which ones they want to claim.