Erik Jaccard explains why we let critics tell us which foreign films to see (and why we listen) and the impact of Hitchcock in his review of 2003’s Swimming Pool.

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Swimming Pool

Dir. François Ozon

I’ll start off this re-view with a truism: I know a lot more about most things now than I did in 2003. I have ten more years of life under my belt, ten more years of film viewing, ten more years of practice at analyzing and appreciating cultural artifacts, and ten more years of personal and intellectual development. I’m more independent now, or at least I like to think I am. I’m less willing to believe things simply because those I feel are smarter or more sophisticated than me tell me I should. But in thinking through my original reactions to François Ozon’s 2003 suspense-thriller Swimming Pool, I have been forced to reach an uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing conclusion: my reactions to the film in 2003 were not entirely my own. Let me explain by way of a slightly lengthy digression.

In 2003 I watched foreign films mostly because reviewers for The Stranger, Seattle’s weekly left-liberal ‘alternative’ newspaper, told me I should. There were at least three sides to this subtle coercion. The first has to do simply with my perspective. I wasn’t much of a blog reader back then and, to my recollection, I didn’t have a whole lot of friends who were foreign film buffs. So, reading The Stranger, which often reviews foreign films playing at Seattle’s smaller cinemas, was really the only way I ever found out about them. Therefore, if a writer for The Stranger said a foreign film was worth seeing, I often agreed simply because there were no other voices in my world telling me otherwise.

The second was the simple pressure and/or guilt we’ve all felt at one time or another to participate in some form of high culture because we are told it is inherently interesting/provocative/beneficial. The motivation for this variety culture-peddling goes way back to the nineteenth century, when intellectuals such as the English writer and critic Matthew Arnold were expounding on the virtues of ‘culture’ as both the best and brightest the world had to offer, but also as an insulating bulwark against the supposedly deadening effects of “mass culture,” which arose most noticeably in the early twentieth century alongside the emergence of a burgeoning, literate, but nonetheless ‘middlebrow’ class of readers (and, ultimately, moviegoers).  Having recently graduated with my degree in English Literature, I think I was then much more vulnerable to the suggestion that anything ‘middlebrow’ was bad, precisely because I had been trained in certain ways to appreciate, maintain, and value the distinction between the fairly arbitrary categories of ‘high’ and ‘low,’ and  because I thought one of the most unique things about me as a student of the humanities was my ability to tell the difference (If I have not yet entirely abandoned this conceited position, I like to think I’ve at least modified it out of recognition).

Finally, I believed what the writers at The Stranger told me because their commentary formed an amusing counterpoint to the often rarefied, snooty elitism of high culture vultures. That is to say, I gravitated to recommendations in The Stranger because its position viz a viz both mainstream and elite culture was/is more or less oppositional (or, at least, would like to be). While this is probably not always true, it seemed true enough at the time, and the paper seemed like a credible alternative voice, something addressed to me and/or people I wanted to be like. Back then I found most of the paper’s A&E writers to be either super smart or super amusing, and there was little I enjoyed more in my early ‘20s than writing that managed to be both intelligent and funny. These were the two things I wanted most from myself and reading the paper often made me feel like I was being let into the cool kids’ party for a few minutes. Finally, though I’ve since grown more wary of the paper’s occasionally self-satisfied hipsterism, many of its writers seemed (and still seem) to offer an adult perspective I found attractive and worthy of interest and/or emulation, one concerned with the politics and culture of citizenship, with alternative voices and perspectives, and, not surprisingly, with forms of art and culture lying outside of the commercial mainstream. So I listened to what they said, even if I didn’t always agree with it. Therefore, when Sean Nelson wrote this paean to French actress Ludivine Sagnier, the costar of Swimming Pool, my interest was immediately piqued, if for no other reason than that I, too, enjoyed ogling beautiful women.

It may not be clear from what I’ve written above, but part of the problem with someone telling you that you ought to go see something is that such recommendations often come with the implication that one ought also to naturally like whatever is being recommended. Everyone has surely had this experience before. It’s the extended sequence of moments that starts with a trusted friend exhorting you to go see X thing because it was super amazing and fun and totally worthwhile and DID I MENTION IT WAS AMAZING? Then one goes to see X thing and is, if not turned off, then not quite as turned on as their trusted friend. In those situations I often find myself dreading the next meeting with this person because I fear having to sound only mildly enthusiastic about that thing they so loved. The point here, I suppose, is that after reading Nelson’s follow-up review in the following week’s Stranger, I felt compelled to see the film, and did, shortly thereafter. And, damn it all to hell, I found it only good. But it was also one of those times where, because I felt as though I was supposed to experience the film differently, I started to convince myself that it was better, Nelson’s excitement latching onto and transforming my own until it was difficult to tell the difference between the two. At that point in my life I frankly didn’t know much about film, so I let the self-described experts tell me what I should appreciate. As such, I went into my first viewing primed to appreciate what Nelson had appreciated: the ambiguous relationship between Charlotte Ramping’s stuffy, frustrated older writer-figure, Sarah, and Ludivine Sagnier’s wild-child ingénue, Julie; the Hitchcockean play with suspense and psychology; the way the film turns to and manipulates Sagnier’s beauty and sexuality. And because I had these ready-made categories available, I’m sure it was precisely this trifecta of instantly appreciable things I came away loving (or feeling I ought to love).  Ten years later, I’m back to revisit the film and my own perspective, hoping that the various roads travelled in that time have indeed made all the difference.

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How Was It Then?

Swimming Pool was—and is—one of those films that seem to slip through the cracks precisely because it is so solid that it falls into line with all of those other sturdy films that rank somewhere around a 7 out of 10. If you really think about it, there are a lot of good to great movies that end up in this lost space, the big bubble right below all the great ones and right above all the middling ones that are even easier to forget. As we tend to re-watch mostly our favorites or the ‘great’ films, these good + films just accumulate in the great universal filmic anteroom, which is why they actually make for perfect 10 Years Ago material: were we to simply leave them lying there, we might never give them a chance to grow on us the same way the really good and really bad ones do.

Before I get into my original reactions, let’s dispense with the plot:

Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling, as understated as ever), a successful English crime fiction writer, is in a rut. While her famous series of detective novels continues to sell, she nonetheless feels stale, trapped without creativity, her age and beauty fading. She is on the verge of being eclipsed by younger, more successful writers. Seeking to shake things up, she escapes to a French villa owned by her publisher, John (Charles Dance), for some much needed relaxation and creative solitude. After only a couple of days, however, Sarah is disturbed by the arrival of John’s French daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a wild ingénue who promptly ensconces herself in Sarah’s citadel of tranquility. Julie immediately turns Sarah’s peaceful retreat upside down, making messes, lying about either mostly or fully naked, and bringing a series of men home for noisy sexual escapades. A complex and ambiguous relationship develops between the two women, refracted by John, their common reference point, and defined by the various roles and social/familial positions each offers the other. What at first seems more like a character-driven psychological drama quickly becomes a suspenseful thriller when a local man turns up dead, likely at Julie’s hands.

This all seems very standard as I type it here today. We know this plot because we’ve seen it so many times. It’s the murderous ‘what lies beneath’ psychodrama that Hitchcock so famously refined over the course of his career. And Hitchcock does not really get old. In fact, Hitchcock’s films seem only to grow in stature and significance with time (Vertigo recently leapfrogged Citizen Kane to claim the #1 spot on the BFI’s top 50 films of all time). To my credit, and despite the implications of a ‘shallow’ or influenced first viewing noted above, I remember liking Swimming Pool mostly for this reason, because it did what Hitchcockean thrillers are supposed to do. It introduced interesting characters with obvious psychological conflicts, produced an event of some kind—in this case a murder—and then kept us in at least minor suspense right up through its highly ambiguous ending. I don’t think I knew how to appreciate what I was watching at the time, outside of the plot and acting, but I enjoyed it to the best of my ability, content in the knowledge that the experts knew what they were talking about.

Plus, there was the sex and voyeurism angle of which Nelson had spoken, and which had partly titillated me into seeing the film in the first place (I like to be titillated. But then, who doesn’t?). While voyeurism is a prominent theme in Hitchcock’s films, a more blatant focus on sex and sexuality is what Ozon adds to the mix. One of the phrases Netflix uses to describe Swimming Pool is “dark and steamy,” which could be used to describe any number of films, but which aptly characterizes my initial reaction to Swimming Pool in 2003. From the film’s poster, a shot of Sagnier lying bikini-clad next to the film’s titular pool, to Nelson’s review, to the early portions of the film following Julie’s arrival (she’s naked within minutes), it seemed natural to expect some kind of sex-y-a-thon (‘sexathon’ sounds too much like an orgy). What I received, however, actually verified that I was, in certain ways, unable to appreciate the film for what it actually offered. I got that there was sex, but I took it too literally. I read Julie’s character as just some promiscuous young thing. She had issues, sure, but because I probably had a less mature idea of what sex does—and can—mean, I read her actions in singular dimensions, with little depth. This experience was similar to my initial viewing ofY Tu Mamá Tambien in that I ended up focusing too much on the literal foreground of the film, rather than on the much more interesting subtext hiding just underneath.  

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How Is It Now?

It’s every bit as good as that original 7-8 score, but probably no better and certainly no worse. Well-made psychological dramas don’t tend to change much or fall out of favor and Swimming Pool is no exception. In fact, all that’s changed in the ensuing ten years is my ability to read it with more depth and nuance. In that spirit, I’ll offer a few things that stood out to me this time around, some of which are intimately linked to the issues I’ve already spent time discussing above.

One of the most enjoyable experiences one can take away from a Hitchcockean psychological thriller is to break it down into its various levels, compartments, or spaces. This is mostly easily demonstrated with a film like Psycho, in which psychological space is clearly marked within locations like the Bates family home, with its upstairs, ground floor, and ‘fruit cellar’ (“You think I’m fruity, huh!?!” —Sorry, one of my favorite lines.) corresponding to various subconscious and subtextual  levels.  Like PsychoSwimming Pool is clearly a film with a sizeable dose of psychological subtext underpinning the narrative’s main plot and somehow I managed to miss much of this the first time around. From the early image of a Sarah lifting the swimming pool cover to see what she already knows is hidden beneath, the viewer gets a very clear sense that what ensues will have much to do with sounding Sarah’s own depths. The film also presents us with a situation in which two texts—the film’s plot on the one hand and the novel Sarah writes on the other—sandwich this simmering subtext, which is consistently spilling over the sides, illuminating the shadows of the former while actively forming the contours of the latter.

On the one hand there is the main plot, in which the frustrated writer is trying to break out of a rut and into new creative territory, partly as a means of soliciting the approval of her publisher, who clearly relies on Sarah’s production, but who also views her as yesterday’s news. Her dismissal and relegation to the publisher’s French chateau is what both drives the story—with the addition of Sagnier’s Julie—and the creation of the new novel. Then there’s the novel itself, the second text, the thing the plot is moving toward. What this second text ultimately entails is left ambiguous at the film’s end, as we it remains unclear whether Sarah has written a new novel based on her experiences with Julie, or whether a long-lost  novel written by Julie’s absent—and maybe dead—mother has been submitted instead. What was absolutely clear to me this time around, however, is that whatever text is produced (and I’m not sure it matters) is clearly dependent on all of the film’s various subtexts.

As a figure, Julie clearly plays at least two major roles in relation to Sarah, though this viewing revealed to me a couple more that we might consider. First, she’s clearly her double, the open, free, and overtly sexual creature that performs a suppressed Dionysian side to which Sarah’s rigid, controlled personality will not admit. In this, it would seem Julie allows for the vicarious enjoyment Sarah’s sexuality, which may be fading with age. Second, she’s also clearly her foil, a subconscious other who works against the goals of the fastidious, conscious self that only wants the peace and quiet necessary to relax and write. However, watching the film a second time around, I also realized that there’s more to these complex psychological dynamics. Julie is, for instance, clearly not only an embodiment of youthful energy; she’s also a daughter figure, someone Sarah can collaborate with and protect.

Furthermore, and this is where things are at their most dark and steamy, she also seemed to me this time around to play the role of a sister, someone with whom she shares a common frustration (John, the publisher/father) and in whom she can confide. This is dark and steamy and possibly disturbing because it is the most sexualized of the potential subtextual relationships. In the moments when Sarah voyeuristically watches Julie having sex, the feeling you get is not of a parent catching a child in the act, but of an older sister resentfully eyeing the behavior of the favored child. This is less disturbing in the context of the film’s overt plot, where Sarah is just some uptight visiting foreigner, but much more disturbing when you place both women in one of Hitchcock’s favorite geometrical positions—the triangle—along with John, the publisher/father. As I’ve said, the novel produced by Sarah at the film’s end could be mostly about one of these things, all of them, or something else entirely (likely the story of a woman, like Julie or her mother, whose life/sexuality has been consistently suppressed by a domineering father/husband). But, more than anything else, this is the story—or these are the stories—the film tells every bit as much, or more, than the actual plot it unfolds.

Finally, much of this became obvious to me this time around because just this spring I taught a writing course at the University of Washington linked to a lecture on Hitchcock. I can see now that this might actually have led me to miss any  number of things the film was doing that are more pertinent to a discussion of Ozon as a filmmaker, and I must admit that I’ve never seen any of his other films. But what it did mean was that some of the filmic craft that went into Hitchcock’s productions was much more apparent to me here, whether it be the clear emphasis on the explicit pairing of scenes (Julie/Sarah lounging around and eating while watching TV; Julie/Sarah laying by the pool; Julie/Sarah being ogled by man, the camera tracing every inch of exposed flesh), the disjunctive cuts which move the viewer from one expectation to its subversion in the next shot (we see Julie and Frank touching themselves beside the pool and then cut to a shot of Julie having sex with…another guy, etc.), or else the conscious attention to mis-en-scéne (reflections in glass, in mirrors) and lighting (especially the deliberate play of shadows). The other thing that jumped out at me this time—and this has to do with Hitchcock as well—was how inconsequential the film’s murder seemed at the time. Coming nearly two-thirds into the film, it isn’t all that shocking, really, when it happens, and even the moments designed to build suspense as to whether or not the pair will be discovered are noticeably flat.  I think this is ultimately because the mystery is not meant to be who was killed with what weapon in what room (Sarah’s forte as a novelist), but rather how we are to read Sarah’s relationship to Julie, to men and her own sexuality, and to her own position in the world as one who watches and writes, but does not do (as Julie mockingly points out).

Right, that’s all I’ve got for this installment. I’ve chosen to forgo the usual ‘Free-Floating Thoughts’ this time around, partly because I didn’t have many that haven’t already been included, and partly because my time is up. C’est la vie. See you in August, when I’ll be reviewing another ‘foreign’ flick, Irishman John Crowley’s romantic comedy Intermission.

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