Swimming Pool

Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?
And God said … “I will bless her, and she will become the mother of nations.”

A shadow, cast from a place unseen, looms over the woman basking in the sun. Whether its owner is male or female, we can’t quite tell. Neither is it possible to discern his (or her) intentions. A voyeur, perhaps? Or a stalker? Or maybe a guardian who silently watches over the one with closed eyes, shut off from the world?

Despite the uncertainties, this much is clear: the shadow does not belong to the reclining woman, but to another. Sequestered from our field of vision, the watcher stands transfixed between water and sky, eclipsing the Sun, unable to see – or appreciate – what the young woman takes pleasure in. In this way, she serves as a screen, catching the shadow of the watcher. And, like the one who stands over her, our gaze will be directed to this woman-as-screen: she is the one from whom meaning will be sought, as if she alone were in possession of the secret around which the ensuing story will unfold.

The tagline reads “On the surface, All is calm” although it’s plain to see this isn’t quite the case. Gentle ripples animate the shadow cast over the water and threaten to dissolve the letters that spell out the silent signifier haunting the events to follow, as if it were a child’s creation unable to withstand the power of the lapping sea.

Despite the impulse to focus on the actress’ body, evident in many reviews of this film, what we are presented with here are the outlines of a mystery, perhaps the greatest one of all. The figure framed by the camera’s eye reclines in the Sun’s glory, seemingly oblivious to the world, even as we are alerted to that which lies beyond our field of vision. This unseen presence, only seemingly absent, hints at the relationship between observer and observed, yes, but also to forms of (in)sight not immediately apparent to a mind’s eye still learning how to see. Only careful investigation, and a certain kind of fearlessness, will unveil the truth that beckons from the water’s surface.

It is with this portrait of a crime already committed that the filmmakers introduce us to the world of Swimming Pool.

The Mystified Protagonist

One possible source of the shadow may be the protagonist of the film herself, Sarah Morton, who has taken a trip to France to work on her latest detective novel. But soon, and apparently out-of-the-blue, her quiet refuge is interrupted by the arrival of this young woman, unsettling the delicate balance of this barricaded retreat. The intruder will be reminded of her unwelcome presence, repeatedly and vociferously. But despite the severity of the attacks, the author’s aversion will quietly transform into fascination, mesmerized by the younger woman, as if she held the key to a mystery far more compelling than what any novel might contain.

The smallest sign of the young woman’s activity – the morning shuffle of slippers heading toward the pool, disembodied voices floating through the night – will lure Sarah to the nearest window, as if this other life held more excitement and promise than her own. The lines between voyeur, stalker, and guardian will blur, as curious glances begin to gain an urgency that colonizes the imagination. The swimming pool, initially bearing the traces of disuse and neglect, will be one site that will hold Sarah’s awe. The young woman’s bedroom will be another.

We are only provided glimpses into the life that preceded this encounter between the two women, but Sarah’s captivation is not difficult to understand. She is, after all, a writer flailing against a well of inspiration gone dry, left alone to face the desolation that has drained her of life’s blood. One suspects that the writing is not the only part of Sarah’s life that has been abandoned and left depleted, made haggard by an absence unable to replenish itself.

Such is the “barren” state in which we first meet Sarah Morton. It is also the impetus for her escape from the England in which her detective novels are set. Slouched in her publishers office, tightly wrapped in her trench coat secured and with umbrella in hand – her weapons against the elements, particularly water – she grumbles about her plight, bristling at his suggestion that she has more than enough money to keep her happy. Despite her clarity about what he does not wish to understand, she cannot find a name for what has left her bone-weary and gasping for air. All she can do is muster the strength to give voice to her misery … or attack whatever potential prey may cross her path.

“You don’t take care of me anymore …”

And to some extent, her complaints – and accusations – succeed, eliciting an invitation from the publisher to use his villa in France as a getaway. He may even come by for a visit.

The (Initial) Delight of Escape

The publisher, as it turns out, was right: except for the crucifix guarding the bed that will become her own, Sarah finds the house to be perfect. Nestled in the quiet countryside, complete with the swimming pool, open air, and the inviting caresses of the sun, it is exactly what she was looking for. The local cafe provides the simple pleasures of a quiet cup coffee and food prepared by the hands of others. Transformed as she is by this change of scene, she even allows herself to imagine how she might look in the red brocade dress hanging in the closet, flirting with the idea that such an elegant version of herself might not be so foreign, after all. There’s even an attractive man at the cafe who might be interested in her.

Words return, as well, inspired in part by the large ovoid puzzle nestled in the corner of the bedroom. (A Cosmic Egg, perhaps?) Armed with this new idea for her next novel, she begins to write. For a short time, enlivened by the energy brought on by this trip to another land, she revels in the release from the crushing torment she thought she might never escape.

But between the writing, afternoons reviewing her work in the sun, and her walks to town, we see evidence of habits that have refused to stay at home in England, stowaway routines that have shadowed her passage to this newfound Eden. Most notable is her relation to food and nourishment, her shopping list consisting entirely of yogurt and diet Coca-Cola. Whether they be instruments of penance or an attempt to maintain a slim figure is unclear. But the tub of sloppy liquid that constitutes her dinner, even if doused with generous quantities of artificial sweetener, cannot help but leave her unsatisfied. Particularly when she’s in a foul mood. For under cover of night, it gives rise to another voracious appetite, one that’s rarely allowed show its face, precisely because it has so rarely been attended to.

Evenings spent over a cocktail (or two) begin to resemble something other than the quiet retreat her stay at this villa was meant to be. In its place, we find the whisper of boredom, and the muffled screams of exasperation. Jerked to consciousness from a sprawled stupor, she stumbles to bed.

So close. And yet, so far away.

The Dark of Night vs. The Light of Day

To make matters worse, the publisher phones to tell Sarah he will not be stopping by for a visit. Too busy with work obligations – and his daughter – to make the trip, he says …

Opening the bedroom window, she breathes in the cool night air, as if to steady herself. When, all of a sudden, she hears the sound of tires crunching the gravel of the driveway and, later, thumping sounds emerging from below. With a mixture of irritation and trepidation, and armed with a table lamp, she tiptoes downstairs to investigate and, if necessary, defend herself against whatever it is that has intruded at this ungodly hour.

In place of what she might have feared, Sarah finds a woman who, under different circumstances, could easily be her own daughter: unthreatening in dress and demeanor; certainly shorter in stature and younger in years. But rather than take this as a sign to let her guard down, even if only slightly, she proceeds to interrogate the newcomer about her identity and purpose, a young woman who, in our eyes at least, only seems eager to introduce herself.

(We are told she is Julie, the publisher’s daughter.)

The contrast between the two is striking, both in appearance and in manner. For while Sarah, the elder, is armed against the lurking dangers of night, wielding an improvised club in hand, Julie, the younger, does her best to allay the frumpy woman’s fear. And unlike the ease with which Julie carries herself, Sarah can’t help but come across as rigid, devoid of light, the lampstand serving less as a weapon than an emblem of what has been extinguished.

It’s not surprising, then, that the two will not hit it off, particularly since Sarah is dead set on finishing her novel, even as she continues the silent struggle against an unnamed dread that refuses to go away. Predictably, then, Julie’s comings and goings will grate on her, especially when other sounds enter the house, evidence of a carnal life that belongs to Julie but not to her. Soon, Sarah will be unable to control the tide of anger and frustration that swells within her, Julie becoming the target of Sarah’s rage: screaming – like a child – at the young woman who has so rudely destroyed her quiet retreat.

For a while, ear plugs suffice to prevent the sounds of copulation from disrupting her night’s rest but, gradually, these nocturnal writhings begin to pique Sarah’s interest. Earplugs are allowed to remain on the nightstand as the sounds of sex are permitted to float into her room and over her inert body. It’s not long before she begins to follow the sounds coming from elsewhere, furtive peeks quickly turning into fixed fascination, as she is inexplicably drawn to what, at first, was so repelling.

In the light of day, after Julie has had her way with the older men that have been brought home, Sarah finds evidence of drunken nights strewn about the house. Her morning ritual, hunched over coffee as if she were the one recovering from a night of excess, regularly interrupted by pudgy men unconcerned that she knows of their nighttime doings. And unashamed of speaking to her in various stages of undress.

As if she were the one with whom they had spent the night.

Fantasy

Despite the acrimonious relationship between Sarah and Julie, their worlds – and bodies – begin to meld.

We see Julie swimming in the pool. Then Sarah, even though, until now, all physical contact with the water has been shunned. A woman basks in the sun. Julie. Then another. Sarah. The camera pans across a woman’s body, from feet to head. Sarah or Julie? Sarah standing over Julie. As Sarah naps in the sun, Julie standing over Sarah. Reclining bodies and the limbs of unseen figures fill the screen.

Later, we see another pair of legs, this time clearly belonging to a man, standing over a woman with eyes closed against the sun. He stands over her erect, aroused by the sight of the one laid out before him. His face. The man from the cafe who has caught Sarah’s eye. But the reclining woman is Julie, not Sarah. As he imagines what he would do to her, she enters a fantasy world of her own. Fingers come to life, animated by an urge that’s not their own, exploring the familiar expanse of her body, coaxing the flame set alight by his lustful gaze …

Sarah awakes. And having scrapped the latest installment in her Inspector Dorwell series, she begins work on another story. For she has come upon another mystery, one more gripping than anything she might have conjured on her own accord.

It is Julie who will be her (new) subject.

The Light of Day vs. The Dark of Night

“All that separates them, a secret will unite.”

While she might not be able to articulate why, until this point Sarah’s writing created a labyrinth out of which she could not escape. Focused entirely on the artifice of crime and death built from the imagination, she was left without any footing other than what had been constructed from thin air, adrift in the empty ocean of sky. Her turn away from this prison of confabulation and toward the maddening, yet mysteriously alluring, Julie provides Sarah with the first taste of something substantial and permanent, one that will exceed the transient delight provided by a mere change of scene.

It is only the first step, but it is the impetus that will help her begin to discern the outlines of a self that had long lay buried beneath layers of fabrication, one that will come to stand proudly on its own, in the light of day.

To get there, she will need to make a choice, a decision with which she has long been faced, but of which she had remained blissfully unaware. And it will be Julie who will force that decision upon her.

Sarah will begin this new quest by reconciling with Julie, inviting her to dine at the local restaurant, its palette of earthy browns a stunning contrast to the airy blues of the villa, and the swimming pool. We will suspect her motives, given the interrogation that soon follows, as if she were a disinterested reporter; our suspicion will be heightened when we later witness Sarah snooping through Julie’s belongings. But Julie will play along with Sarah’s newfound interest, even encourage it. It’s not long before they’re spending the evenings together, with the older woman eager to demonstrate she’s not as much of a prude as Julie may think she is.

Even as they seem to warm up to each other, Julie has plans of her own. She will invite the man from the cafe to the house for an evening over drinks and music. As Julie’s guest, this will make for an awkward threesome, particularly when the two of them ask Sarah about her detective novels. (They are amused by the title of the latest installment in the series: “Dorwell Wears a Quilt.”) With all of them gathered in the same room, Sarah will also see that he seems a more natural “fit” for Julie than herself.

Nevertheless, when Julie invites her to join in their dancing, Sarah will also allow herself to believe that she’s not an interloper. But after heading up to bed, the noises coming from the swimming pool will make it clear that the party has continued in her absence. Sarah will take up her usual position by the window. But – for the first time – she will refuse the furtive glances of a passive observer. As a wave of emotions surges through her, she will also resist the allure of watching from a distance. Instead, Sarah will act to disrupt their coupling …

The following morning, Sarah finds Julie asleep in bed, alone. The man from the cafe nowhere to be found. Overwhelmed by panic, she suspects something terrible may have happened. Fears he may be dead. Was his life taken at Julie’s hands? Rushing to town to check up on him up at work, and then driving to his home in a neighboring town, she desperately seeks assurance against the awful sense of dread that can only speak the name of death.

Returning from her futile search for life, Sarah finds Julie in a different sort of panic. While she was obsessing about the fate of the man from the café, Julie has worked herself into a fit of hysteria, believing that she had been abandoned, yet again. She finds Julie in her room. The same room which, during the course of their strange courtship, has witnessed the cross mysteriously reappear over her bed. As if standing watch over Sarah as she slept.

With Julie writhing on the floor in pain, Sarah rushes to cradle her in her arms. And in doing so, the two of them touch.

As if for the first time.

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~ by mistified on September 21, 2009.

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