Secrets of Swimming Pool : An Interview with François Ozon
Swimming Pool is world-premiering In Competition at the 2003 Cannes International Film Festival. With Swimming Pool, Europe's most daring and inventive writer/director, François Ozon, reunites with his two favorite leading ladies, Charlotte Rampling (of Under the Sand) and Ludivine Sagnier (of 8 Women). Deliciously sophisticated and sexy, Swimming Pool, the first of Mr. Ozon's movies to be made in the English language, revisits the sense of mystery that infused Under the Sand.
Q: How did Swimming Pool bring you back together with your two favorite leading ladies?
François Ozon: After 8 Women, I wanted to return to a film that would be more intimate - simpler, with fewer characters - and would star actresses I already knew and had an easy rapport with. I immediately thought of Charlotte Rampling, because Under the Sand had been a beautiful experience for both of us. I wrote the part for her, and we awaited her commitment before moving forward.
Ludivine Sagnier's role was originally written for a young man. But I felt that a relationship between two women would be more interesting, and I wanted to further explore the kind of relationship that bound Gaby [Catherine Deneuve] and Louise [Emmanuelle Béart] in 8 Women. With Charlotte playing opposite Ludivine, I could suggest a mother/daughter relationship - and also match an established actress opposite a younger one.
Ludivine had suffered a bit during 8 Women because I paid more attention to the other actresses; except for Ludivine, I hadn't worked with any of them before. Since she played a tomboy in that film, I wanted to spoil her with a sexy new role. Ludivine began to train physically to become a sort of Marilyn Monroe of the South of France.
Q: This is your first movie in English. What motivated you to take this step?
FO: Once I made the lead character an English author and cast Charlotte, I thought it only natural. Also, I thought it would be fun to try to direct actors in English. I do speak the language but have not completely mastered it. Since Charlotte speaks fluent French, I didn't think it would be too complicated. The language did become a game in that, first, I wrote the script in French. Then I had it translated. Going from French into English, the script evolved, because some of the nuances in French did not translate exactly into English. We had to find equivalents.
Q: That's another part of the creative process, which Swimming Pool addresses as a whole.
FO: Yes. People are constantly asking me, "How is it possible for you to make one film after the other? Where does your inspiration come from?" To answer that question, I had the idea of projecting myself onto the character of an English writer instead of talking about myself as a director. So then the exploration became, how does a writer find inspiration and create a story, and what links that story to reality?
For her work, Sarah Morton needs to be alone, to lock herself away in a comfortable house and follow a strict regimen with rules that she imposes on herself. Then, suddenly, reality comes knocking on her door. Her first reaction, of course, is to reject it and to withdraw into herself. But then she decides to let this reality enter into her project. Sooner or later, the artist is forced to make a pact with reality.
Q: Sarah is an English mystery writer. Why, and how, were you so specific?
FO: Because I think it is not the style that is most important, but rather the narrative - the intrigue and the accumulation of clues that ultimately lead to the murderer or the solution. Writing a screenplay is similar in that all of the elements are put into place so that they can be brought to life during filming. In filmmaking, I like throwing the spectator off guard, going someplace unexpected.
Ever since Agatha Christie, there is a tradition of English women writers who like to describe particularly troubling or horrible characters and situations. I met with François Rivičre, who has studied these writers and gave me some insight into their psychologies. A number of them drink too much, have repressed lesbian tendencies, and are fascinated by perversions.
Before we started the film, I sent the script to the author Ruth Rendell and proposed that she imagine the book that Sarah would write in Swimming Pool. She answered me right away with a very sharp letter; she thought I had the nerve to ask her to write a novelization of the script, and she let me know that she has never needed anyone's help with her writing. Charlotte was amused by this and told me this was exactly how Sarah Morton would have reacted.
Q: Did you work closely with Charlotte Rampling to create the character of Sarah Morton?
FO: While the character of Marie in Under the Sand fed off of Charlotte's personality, this time the character is completely invented. In real life, Charlotte is very far from Sarah Morton.
With Pascaline Chavanne, our costume designer, Charlotte and I looked at photos of Patricia Highsmith, Patricia Cornwell, P.D. James, and Ruth Rendell. They all have something masculine about them, and they all give the impression that life stopped in the 1970s. Charlotte agreed to cut her hair and to go in that direction. As Swimming Pool progresses, Sarah evolves in both her attitudes and her clothes. She blossoms, becoming more feminine and luminous.
Q: The author physically changes as she writes.
FO: Yes, I wanted to start off with the cliché of the old Englishwoman uncomfortable in her own skin - who was probably radiant in her youth. I also wanted this aging body to become an object of desire, maybe even more than Julie's.
Most importantly, I wanted Sarah and Julie's bodies to each take on the qualities of the other. Sarah undresses little by little, her clothes become more feminine, and a portion of life is reinstated. Julie, on the other hand, begins to lose her former artifice and move towards purity. She turns into a child again, whereas she begins the story as a very aggressive and sexual young woman. There is a mutual exchange between these two women.
I've created an unusual rhythm since we do not immediately step into the story proper. The establishing scenes are very important. First, in London, we discover Sarah in her daily little world - interacting with her publisher, her family situation as a spinster living with her father, her taste for alcohol…Then there is a second introduction to Sarah, which shows her setting up shop in Lubéron and settling into work.
This way, we step into Sarah's story - the way she works, the tangible methods of a writer who requires a specific environment what with her habits and her odd little ways. Swimming Pool adheres to the rhythm of the creative process: things fall into place bit by bit, and in the last half-hour everything speeds up. Then you're dealing with highly concentrated twists and emotions.
Q: The end of the film suggests that not everything Sarah's seen has been real.
FO: In the creative process, things are never simple: What is real and what is not? How do you differentiate fantasy from reality? This theme also echoes Under the Sand, where Charlottte's character kept mixing fantasy and reality. Although in Swimming Pool, everything related to fantasy is part of the act of creation, so it is more channeled and less likely to end up causing madness.
In terms of directing, I've treated everything that is imaginary in Swimming Pool in a realistic way so that you see it all - fantasy and reality alike - on the same plane. When you tell a story, or when you film it, your process of identification with your characters is such that you completely immerse yourself in their logic and their perceptions. It's as if you're experiencing the same emotions that they are.
Q: Please tell us about composer Philippe Rombi's score for the film.
FO: Usually, I'll ask the composer to look at the movie towards the end of editing. This time, since the film is about a book in the process of being written, I thought it would be intriguing to give the composer the screenplay so that his music might hint at what the book is about. So at the outset of the film, the melody is very fragmented, just a few notes. The real theme asserts itself only gradually. I wanted it played with different instruments throughout the film, accompanying the story's own evolution.
Q: Is there a specific meaning to the swimming pool itself?
FO: Each person can see in it whatever symbol he or she desires. I've filmed bodies of water several times before - most often the ocean, which I have used to embody a lack of inhibition, or a sense of anguish. In this film, I'm utilizing the swimming pool for its plasticine quality and also for its enclosed and confining aspect. Contrary to the ocean, a pool is something that you can manipulate.
The swimming pool is Julie's space. The pool is like a cinema screen on which you project things and through which a character enters. It takes a long time before Sarah Morton gets into the swimming pool. She can do it only when Julie becomes her inspiration, and only when the pool is finally clean.