'Swimming Pool' seduces with a dip into surprising, erotic waters

Charlotte Rampling's delivery in "Swimming Pool" is so dry, it should be served with an olive and a twist. As crime novelist Sarah Morton, Rampling cultivates the bored, slightly disdainful look of a woman without curiosity. With a horizontal mouth and nondescript haircut, she looks carved out of granite; you have to look closely to see a change in expression, as this woman isn't handing anything out.

Early in the movie, arriving for a solo holiday at her publisher's country home, she closes her eyes against a light French breeze, and we see just the tiniest hint of contentment, pulling up at the corners of her mouth. This is not something we'd guess Sarah allows herself often — and, luckily for us, it won't last long.

Writer/director François Ozon (making his first English-language film) previously teamed with Rampling and co-writer Emmanuèle Bernheim for the moody, lovely drama "Under the Sand" in 2001. "Swimming Pool," with an equally juicy role for the actress, is more of a psychological thriller, and it's even more satisfying; shimmering with eroticism and simmering with the tension of unfamiliarity — we never know, right up to the flourish of its end, quite where this film is going. And Rampling effortlessly carries it all along, as a writer who notices everything and files it away behind her steely gaze.

Sarah, stymied by her latest novel, brings her precisely packed suitcase to France in hopes of relaxation and inspiration. What she finds, to her surprise, is her publisher's daughter Julie (lovely Ludivine Sagnier, seen in Ozon's "8 Women"), a loopy nymph with a tangled waterfall of blond hair and a freewheeling sexuality.

Julie, free of inhibition and of tan lines, swims nude in the pool while Sarah, in her upstairs bedroom, stares sternly at a blank page.

They're an odd pair of housemates, but their lives begin to intersect in ways it would be criminal for me to reveal. Suffice to say that both are changed by their encounter; Sarah, in particular, finds inspiration and renewed appetite. (In one scene, she savagely tucks into a chocolate dessert, like it's an enemy who needs to be eliminated.) And everybody in the movie, even the waiter at the breezy cafe, turns out to have a story.

Ozon, still a young filmmaker (he's in his mid-30s), proves himself a master of mood; there's a languorous, confident quality to "Swimming Pool" that's thoroughly seductive. With cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, he finds menace in a leaf-strewn pool, or a slightly grayish change in the weather.

And he pulls off a fiendishly difficult trick: finding freshness in yet another tale of writer's block. Late in the movie, Rampling types feverishly at her desk, a cigarette clenched in her teeth. Muses, we learn, can come in very surprising form.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review

"Swimming Pool," with Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sagnier, Charles Dance. Directed by François Ozon, from a screenplay by Ozon and Emmanuèle Bernheim. 102 minutes. Rated R for strong sexual content, nudity, language, some violence and drug use. Harvard Exit.