- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2003

Art-house moviegoers who find “Swimming Pool” something of a head-scratcher may or may not be comforted to learn that writer-director Francois Ozon envisioned it as “a kind of self- portrait.” The 35-year-old filmmaker, a Parisian with an ample grasp of English, emerged as a major discovery two years ago while guiding the English actress Charlotte Rampling, a transplant to Paris, through an absorbing psychological study of a grief-haunted widow in “Under the Sand.” During a phone conversation from New York, a promotional port of call for Mr. Ozon, he explains how “Swimming Pool” evolved into a reunion project with Miss Rampling, cast this time as an elusive alter-ego for her director.

“I decided to project myself into something where I can have a big distance,” Mr. Ozon says. “Sometimes it’s easier to speak about yourself from this big distance. Much of the film is in English not because of a Hollywood connection or ambition, but because I chose an English mystery writer as the main character. We don’t have this tradition in France. The female writers are dealing in feelings and emotions, but they seldom deal with murder mysteries.”

Asked if he reads murder fiction with any frequency, Mr. Ozon replies that he did when he was younger. “I loved this genre like all children,” he says. “Agatha Christie especially, but I like too some novels by Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell and P.D. James.”

He had the temerity to approach Miss Rendell about being a collaborator of sorts on “Swimming Pool.” After completing his screenplay, Mr. Ozon explains, he mailed a copy to Miss Rendell through her publisher and suggested that she might find it intriguing “to imagine the book that my fictional author, Sarah Morton, would write.” The intentions were complimentary. “She could have all the freedom she wanted to make it her own work, of course,” Mr. Ozon says. “She answered me with a very sharp letter. She was very upset and told me that she needed no one to assist her imagination. Charlotte enjoyed hearing about this rebuke. She thought it was completely in character for Sarah Morton, who would have told me exactly the same thing.”

Sarah Morton is persuaded to work on her latest crime novel while occupying a hideaway in France — the vacation home of her publisher. At this point the principal setting shifts from London to the Luberon. “It’s in Provence in the south of France,” Mr. Ozon explains. “The nearest large city is Avignon. It’s also famous as a region that attracts rich English people. Many have bought houses in the Luberon. Sarah arrives in the late spring, before school holidays have begun. So it’s a little out of season. But this is one of the best times to go there.”

The expository sequences of “Swimming Pool” confirm Mr. Ozon’s uncanny skill at depicting the moods associated with solitude, both contented and ominous. “I have a taste for solitude myself, and I need to be lonely to begin work,” he says. “In this film especially I’m talking about my own creative process. When I start any new project, I need to leave Paris and go to a very quiet place. I like to film the solitude of characters. It’s a way to give the audience the silence of a situation and the opportunity to share in the thought process. I’ve discovered that this can be very disturbing for many people, because most movies introduce themselves in noisy ways. The familiarity between the married couple at the start of ‘Under the Sand’ was expressed largely in silences and very ordinary remarks. Since they’ve lived together for years, this is simply a realistic thing, but there were people who thought it was aggressive of me to emphasize their serenity early in a film. It’s strange, you know?”

Strangeness begins to permeate “Swimming Pool” when Sarah Morton’s idyll is interrupted by the arrival of a total stranger, an amoral young woman named Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) who identifies herself as the daughter of Sarah’s publisher. Annoyance and then an unsavory curiosity dominate the writer’s perceptions of this voluptuous brat, who is inclined to sunbathe in the nude and bring home sex partners for clamorous couplings. But the more one sees of Julie, the more one is inclined to suspect that she may exist exclusively in Sarah’s humid imagination.

Mr. Ozon confirms that the movie is full of “keys” that explain the plot to his satisfaction, but it pleases him to anticipate contradictory interpretations from the public. “I wanted to allow maximum freedom to the audience to imagine what they want,” he says. “What is fake. What is true. What is the book. What is reality. There is a lot to choose from. I didn’t want to eliminate any possibilities. I have my own view of the film, but enough is left open for others to find a different solution.”

A graduate of the French national film school, formerly known as IDHEC and rechristened FEMIS in the early 1990s, Mr. Ozon credits Jean Douchet, an esteemed former editor of the periodical Cahiers du Cinema, as his most influential teacher. “He’s a great analyst of film, a close friend and colleague of Eric Rohmer,” Mr. Ozon says. He is also quick to acknowledge Alain Resnais as a stylistic influence. “I love the fact that each time Resnais makes a film, it is a new experience. He is willing to experiment each time. His films also mix simple and complex things. They reflect popular culture but from a sophisticated point of view.”

The collaboration with Charlotte Rampling has been unique in Mr. Ozon’s experience. “When I met her, to propose doing ‘Under the Sand,’ something very strong happened between us,” the director recalls. “The movie’s success — it was a kind of a rebirth for Charlotte’s career — created a stronger link between us. We don’t have to speak a lot to understand each other. I can’t explain it. We feel we have something common and work very easily together.”

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