As far as middling art-house pictures go, Laurel Canyon had sexier swimming-pool scenes and splashier performances than Swimming Pool, a hollow excuse for an erotic mystery.
In Francois Ozon's mostly English-speaking movie, Charlotte Rampling plays an English detective novelist who takes vacations at the country home of her publisher (Charles Dance) in the South of France, only to have her blissful solitude disturbed by the unexpected arrival of the publisher's nubile daughter (Ludivine Sagnier). With a brainy, pent-up novelist working out her frustrations on a feckless young thing, the least Ozon could give us is a cat-and-mouse game. Instead, he gives us psychological taunting a la Albee between an alpha female and a sex kitten.
The way Ozon and his co-writer, Emmanuele Bernheim, frame these two opposite beauties, they're like characters in a brittle British murder tale, all right - the kind you hope will get knocked off. Rampling's sorry bachelorette, living with her frail father, penning a formula series that keeps her publisher rich if not respectful, needs an existential overhaul. But when she gets to France she falls into just as ironclad a routine: sticking to a yogurt diet, watching TV news, going to bed at 9, and rising early to write another novel.
Naturally, the publisher's daughter clashes with her at once. Chaotic and sybaritic, she brings home a new bedmate every night. She goes around topless and brainless - though of course we learn that she's working out her bitterness toward her dad, especially over his squashing of her mom's literary dreams.
Ozon's characterizations are as second-rate and predictable as they sound - although, to be fair, he does play a lot of the jousting for sadistic comedy. Rampling turns from fantasies of Dance (who is either a cruel former lover or an even crueler tease) to a crush on a well-built cafe waiter. Whether as a personality or a romantic object, this guy is less developed than the handsome Italian chef in the TV commercial who wins the heart of a visiting American with a well-tossed plate of pasta.
The plot thickens only after the writer appears to decide "If you can't beat her, exploit her" and begins cozying up to the girl and mining her journal for the sake of her own new fictional endeavor. Earlier, Ozon uses tons of shimmering poolside imagery to parallel the young woman's sensuality and the older woman's amorous illusions; now reality and fantasy collide disastrously. Or do they? After another run of sick jokes, including the writer's seducing the estate's aged gardener, Ozon resorts to a final twist that renders moot everything that has gone before.
Even when the film pretends to be just a mystery, it's prone to baseless flourishes - the writer's removing a cross above her bed, visiting the Marquis de Sade's castle, or mistaking the gardener's shrunken, prematurely aging daughter for his wife. But the abrupt shift the movie makes at the end is laughably flimsy. Rampling was wonderful as a grief-stricken widow in Under the Sand, another Ozon film with a maddening finale. Here, she's a magnet for pretension in a film that is, at best, a floating enigma - until it rears up and sinks.
Starring Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier
Directed by Francois Ozon
Released by Focus Features
Time 107 minutes
Sun Score *1/2