Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) is a frustrated, middle aged author of crime fiction who has many fans due to her popular detective series. But when she is recognised by one of her readers on the London Underground, she pretends that she isn't Sarah Morton at all, and she is not best pleased when she arrives at the offices of her publisher, John (Charles Dance), and one of his writers compliments her on her work. Sarah makes it clear to John that she's not happy, so he suggests that she visit his house in France and write her latest book there. She accepts and once she arrives, it's like a weight has been lifted from her shoulders: she loves the sunshine and the solitude. However, her peace is about to be broken...
This tricksy psychological drama was scripted by the director, François Ozon, and represented the meeting of two of the stars of his previous movies, Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier. Sagnier plays Julie, the daughter of John, who shows up just as Sarah is settling down to work on her new novel, and a clash of personalities is the result. Sarah's uptight, buttoned-down persona of an Englishwoman abroad is nicely contrasted with Julie's free spirited but petulant personality, and at first it looks as if the two women are not going to get on, especially when Julie brings home a different man every night - it's as if she's everything Sarah dreaded about young French women.
But as their relationship grows, Sarah is, almost against her will, fascinated by Julie, and begins to write notes on her alongside her detective novel. The early scenes, which show Sarah relaxing alone, illustrate something unusual in movies: someone enjoying their own company. The only people Sarah speaks to are on the phone, except for when she travels into town to eat at the restaurant, and have the effect of making you curious about her, just by observing her in her isolation. Then Julie puts paid to that, but she's just as interesting to watch, and not only because she's naked for much of the movie.
Julie swims in the pool, buys a lot of rich food and drink for the fridge, and sleeps around, with the effect that Sarah is jealous of her carefree lifestyle, not that the writer will admit it. Now Sarah wants to swim in the pool, and has it cleaned, and she also secretly helps herself to Julie's food and drink. Then she grows attracted to the waiter at the restaurant, a man who Julie unexpectedly brings home one night, leading to an unfortunate incident which boils up from a rivalry between the two women. It's not only a contrast of characters, it's a contrast of acting styles, and in all that languorous sunshine tension develops that keeps you watching despite most of the emotions simmering beneath the surface.
I should point out now that there's a twist that causes the viewer to reassess all that has gone before. That's if you haven't guessed what it is already, after all those meaningful shots of Rampling in the mirror, and the way the plot transforms into a thriller worthy of one of Sarah's murder mysteries. When Sarah talks to Julie, it's as if she's slyly researching her to get as much information from her as possible, and in so doing she finds out about her own self. In truth, the coyly revealed surprise doesn't add much to the film, and perhaps it would have been better without it - I hesitate to use the phrase "cop out". Maybe, too, the film would have been more effective as a shorter work, but while it's playing out, Swimming Pool is a chance to see three individual talents combining as if deftly performing a mysterious piece of music. Music by Philippe Rombi.