It’s difficult to make the process of writing look interesting on film, but director Francois Ozon and actress Charlotte Rampling have pulled it off in “Swimming Pool,” a graceful and deceptively playful exploration of a writer’s mind. Rampling is magnificent as Sarah Morton, a dour Englishwoman who writes detective novels with plots that seem to suit her personality. But there’s much more lurking beneath the surface, which Ozon and Rampling communicate not through grand gestures but through an accumulation of telling details.
Uninspired as she tries to concoct a new story for her popular “Dorwell series,” Morton goes to her publisher, John Bosload (Charles Dance), for advice. But really, she just wants attention from this smug, secretive man. Though John appears in just two scenes, Sarah’s relationship with him is as important as any in the movie: Watch Rampling as she digs into Sarah’s desire and repulsion for her boss.
John suggests that Sarah spend some time at his vacation home in the south of France, and she accepts. Embracing both the sunny weather and the solitude (she mostly detests interacting with people), Sarah gets straight to work, but soon there arrives a human hurricane in the form of John’s dissolute, French-born daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier).
Julie has simple goals for her time at the house: to swim and sunbathe, either in a skimpy bikini or nothing at all, and to bring home whatever man she can find at night. Sarah is horrified, setting up a war between the repressed English prig and the lissome French libertine that could easily be played for broad comedy. But Ozon instead delights in muddying the waters, suggesting that the two have plenty in common.
Sarah enjoys her vices, too: She scoffs down sweets, takes big gulps of liquor and inhales her cigarettes deeply. And when Julie’s not looking, she acts like an unsupervised teenager — snooping, spying, sneaking Julie’s food and booze.
After opening a new file on her laptop called “Julie,” Sarah begins working with a new intensity. Rarely has it been so compelling to watch someone sit and type as it is under Ozon’s hand here.
Through camera movement, editing and music — and Rampling’s carefully controlled performance — Ozon conjures the bursts of creativity and concentration of an artist who’s really onto something. There’s force in Rampling’s fingers as they clickety-clack on the keyboard.
Along the way, we never get to read a word of what Sarah is composing, but we’re learning more than we think about the content. Ozon never resorts to a narrator; he uses the language of cinema to enter the world of the novel.
For Ozon, whose last film was the buoyant, candy-colored whodunit “8 Women,” “Swimming Pool” is a return to the tone of contemplative mystery that shrouded his last collaboration with Rampling, “Under the Sand.” Still, his touch is lighter than air. He’s confident enough never to overplay his hand, and his handling of plot twists, including a huge hairpin curve at the end, has an understated authority.
Ozon has inspired collaborators in Rampling, whose Sarah has reserves of confidence and fiendishness beneath her dowdy exterior, and Sagnier, who allows fear and desperation to seep through Julie’s exhibitionistic veneer.
“Swimming Pool” is a sophisticated thrill, with superb psychological gamesmanship, explosive eroticism and a rich elusiveness that lingers in your mind. Ozon loves his characters too much to reveal everything about them: He lets them keep a secret or two.