French director dives into mysterious waters

Sarah Morton, the frosty London mystery novelist in François Ozon's latest film, "Swimming Pool," may be stuck in a rut, but it's hard to imagine Mr. Ozon himself in that situation.

Even on two hours' sleep, Ozon is good-humored, quick-witted, and radiates boundless energy.

Having turned out one film a year since 1998, Ozon has established himself as one of France's outstanding young auteurs. His elegant, daring films - notably "Sitcom," a farcical satire of a middle-class nuclear family, and "Water Drops on Burning Rocks" - are characterized by irreverent camp humor, superb craftsmanship, and deliciously subversive subject matter.

"The success in France of my last three films, 'Under the Sand,' '8 Women,' and 'Swimming Pool' have given me a lot of freedom," says Ozon, who was interviewed at the Cannes Film Festival and later in New York. "8 Women," which starred Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, and other leading French actresses, was among the Top 10 French box office hits in 2002. "I could have made a very big film," says Ozon, "but instead I made a low-budget film with two actresses in a location that didn't cost much."

The location for "Swimming Pool" was an idyllic red-tiled and blue-shuttered Provencal house with a sumptuous pool in the chic reclusiveness of the Luberon, next to a house owned by director Ridley Scott, and not far from the former Marquis de Sade's chateau in Lacoste, which was used in one scene.

Tired of churning out her popular Inspector Dalwell series, Sarah Morton, played by Charlotte Rampling, takes up her publisher's offer to stay at his house in southern France, hoping to draw inspiration from a change of scenery. But the pastoral calm is soon shattered by the unexpected arrival of the publisher's nubile teen daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier, who appeared in "8 Women"), an uninhibited party girl who makes good use of the pool and brings home a different man every night. Gradually, the two polar opposites learn to accommodate themselves to each other's routines. And when evidence of foul play shows up, Sarah is well-qualified to investigate the matter.

The filmmakers drew on authors Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith for Morton's character, but a particular favorite of Ozon's in this genre is the lesser-known Elizabeth Atwood Taylor, a 1957 Vassar alum who helped raise the status of crime fiction among literati.

"I chose a mystery novelist as Sarah's profession," says Ozon, "because crime fiction is a minor genre that is a bit like screenwriting, in that you have to sow clues along the way. I thought it would be amusing to draw a parallel between the two."

Shot partly in English, "Swimming Pool" is a Hitchcockian intrigue about the creative process with a novel twist. "What I wanted to show in this film," says Ozon, "is that creativity is not something that just happens, that falls on you from the sky, but something very concrete. At times there are false trails, you have to work out problems, and you have to allow enough time for your idea to mature on its own."

"Swimming Pool" reunites Ozon with coscreenwriter Emmanuèle Bernheim and Rampling, both from "Under the Sand."

Ozon, who says he prefers to direct women, approached Rampling before the script of "Swimming Pool" was written. "I asked her if she wanted to play an English writer in a bad mood," says Ozon. "She did, and we took it from there."

Ozon is not afraid to tackle difficult subjects. "Under the Sand," a study of grief, provided Rampling with a career-defining role as a woman who's in denial over her husband's drowning.

"My last film, '8 Women,' a musical murder mystery, had been rather hard to make," says Ozon. "I'd lost some of the pleasure of shooting a movie and needed to recharge my batteries by working with two actresses I knew well."

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