Ozon’s Carefully Composed Swimming Pool Shimmers and Sparkles Like a Hockney

François Ozon’s Swimming Pool , from a screenplay by Mr. Ozon, written in collaboration with the French novelist Emmanuèle Bernheim, takes you on a sensual, nudity-filled ride before pulling the rug out from under you with a succession of logical inconsistencies. This is to say that Swimming Pool does not progress as a linear narrative with a beginning, middle and end, nor even as a convoluted story in which the ending explains everything that didn’t seem to make sense when the line between reality and fantasy became blurred. Yet, in this respect, there is no devious, deceptive dream apparatus, as there is in several of the films of Luis Buñuel, nor is there an invocation of the supernatural, as there is in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) and Alejandro Amenàbar’s The Others (2001).

Indeed, what Swimming Pool resembles most closely is Mr. Ozon’s previous Charlotte Rampling vehicle, Under the Sand (2001), in which a woman’s husband seems to vanish into a beach-like metaphor. As I was watching Swimming Pool , I kept thinking of David Hockney-not only for Mr. Ozon’s painterly gay sensibility, but also because of his affinity for images of congealed leisure and pleasure. In fact, Mr. Ozon’s swimming pool is itself one of the major characters thanks to its frequent metamorphoses-covered and uncovered, leaf-strewn and cleaned-up, splashing with swimmers or placid as a still life.

Ms. Rampling plays Sarah Morton, a British writer of mystery novels that feature a recurring detective. Sarah’s early scenes in London establish that she doesn’t like being identified with her works, and she positively loathes being patronized by more “serious” authors. Charles Dance plays her longtime publisher John Bosload, who senses that Sarah may be suffering from burnout. He proposes that she spend some time at his home in the Lubéron, in the South of France. It’s the off-season there, and John suggests that Sarah can find the peace and quiet she seeks to work on her next novel. When Sarah learns that John is too busy to accompany her, her visible disappointment suggests that the unmarried, middle-aged Sarah has been nursing a crush on her employer that has never been reciprocated, despite all the money her enormous book sales have poured into the firm.

John’s luxurious home in its idyllic setting exceeds Sarah’s fondest expectations. She immediately settles down at her word processor and begins making significant progress. She finds the villagers friendly and accommodating, and shops for food with her basket like a born Frenchwoman. Then, one night, she is startled out of her sleep by the sound of a car stopping outside and of someone entering the house. Armed only with a metal candleholder, Sarah descends the stairs and finds herself face-to-face with a young girl who identifies herself as John’s French daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), the product of his failed marriage to a Frenchwoman we never meet.

There’s an immediate tension between Sarah’s prim British reserve and Julie’s uninhibited lifestyle, typified by her topless sunbathing and skinny-dipping in the pool, which she has uncovered for the occasion. Sarah is furious with John for not warning her about Julie’s possible arrival, but Sarah is curiously unable to get John on the telephone in London. Still, Julie’s initially disturbing presence-especially when she brings a lover from the village into the house and can be heard through the walls, gasping with orgasmic pleasure-begins to loosen up Sarah perceptibly. Once the pool has been cleaned by a local handyman, Sarah plunges in herself. For her part, Julie seems ostentatiously provocative, as if she’s trying to seduce Sarah. Her toplessness and nudity struck me at first as unrealistically excessive, as if there were some ulterior motive involved.

One day, Julie sneaks into Sarah’s room while Sarah is supervising a worker at the pool and reads the manuscript on which Sarah is working. From her shocked expression, we surmise that Sarah has incorporated Julie and her mother’s failed marriage with John into her mystery. But Julie says nothing to Sarah about her discovery.

What happens next is too confusing for me to synopsize safely. Suffice it to say that the lesbian angle is a non-starter, and the reality of anything and everything that is shown happening after the first meeting of Sarah and Julie is thrown into question. If you are to enjoy the film, you must savor every carefully composed image for itself and itself only, as if you were at an exhibition of paintings with a single theme, the sheer, sensuous pleasure of contemplating the interaction of human bodies with the eerie serenity of a swimming pool. There is sexual liberation of a sort here, but Ms. Rampling, amazingly voluptuous well into her 50’s, and Ms. Sagnier, impressively complex in the Continental manner, never bother to turn each other on with the force with which they mesmerize the audience. Swimming Pool is more an exquisite art object than an involving movie. So be it.

Gold Standard

F. Gary Gray’s The Italian Job , from a screenplay by Donna Powers and Wayne Powers, remade from Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job (1969), from a screenplay by Troy Kennedy Martin, turns out to be a strangely satisfying though completely preposterous caper movie, with pallid lead performances from Mark Wahlberg as electronic wizard Charlie Croker and Charlize Theron as safecracking specialist Stella Bridger, first on the right side of the law and then on the wrong.

The bizarre charm of this movie resides in its giving the audience everything it wants in the way of painless revenge for a dastardly act. Its biggest asset is its hissably treacherous villain, Steve Frezelli, played by the enormously talented Edward Norton, who has gone the opposite way from his sympathetic protagonist in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour .

What Mr. Norton’s Frezelli does is betray and try to murder all his partners in one of the biggest gold heists in history, with the payoff being some 35 million dollars in gold bars, as negotiable today as they were back in 1969 when the original theft took place. The loot is somehow conveyed through the Venetian canals with the help of diving equipment in a mystifying sequence of events that leaves us (without any transition) on a mountain road somewhere in Europe, far from sunny Venice. Frezelli does manage to kill aging master safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland in a late-career cameo), who serves as both an absentee father for Ms. Theron’s heroine and a surrogate father for Mr. Wahlberg’s hero. Three adorable small cars are employed in the violence-free counterheist, and the hero somehow persuades a Ukrainian mob to finish off Frezelli, who, deserving to die for his treachery, was full of snotty attitude besides.

The original film featured a traffic jam in Turin. Our leads and their pals manage to create a massive traffic jam in Los Angeles by tinkering electronically with the stop lights. What fun: a whole city erupting in road rage! It all sounds so silly-and it is-but I still enjoyed it for its sheer ridiculousness and its pleasantly senseless special effects. I suppose that every once in a while, I become so exhausted from all the gloom and doom around me that a high-tech fairy tale with no redeeming social value comes as a welcome relief.

The Importance of Being Ernst

“The Lubitsch Touch” at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street) reaches its climax with a dream double bill, running from Thursday, June 26, through Saturday, June 28, of The Shop Around the Corner (1940) with Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank Morgan, Joseph Schildkraut, Felix Bressart and William Tracy, and To Be or Not to Be (1942) with Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Stanley Ridges. The times for The Shop Around the Corner are 3:20 and 7:20 p.m.; for To Be or Not to Be , 1:20, 5:20 and 9:20 p.m.

Lubitsch’s lower-middle-class origins were eulogized by Jean-Georges Auriol in an obituary first published in 1948 in La Revue du Cinema , and later translated and republished in 1967 in Cahiers du Cinema in English , which I edited.

“Lubitsch was a great middle-class liberal, in fact, a self-made man-stout, nervous, jovial, although perhaps less stout than anything else. Born into the lower-middle-class, he despised neither peasant nor working man nor the petty clerk that he had himself once been; he understood only that everyone should dress in his Sunday best to come to see his films before going off to dance at a family party or, as fortune decreed, in pairs.”

The one Lubitsch movie more than any other to which Auriol’s eloquent words apply is The Shop Around the Corner . This ode to the modesty of middle-class yearnings came out at a moment in American history when people were turning away from the pathos and resignation of the Great Depression toward the dynamic challenges of a world at war and the economic recovery thereof. In this context, The Shop Around the Corner is more the last film of the 30’s than the first film of the 40’s. Adapted by Samson Raphaelson from Miklós Lázló’s Hungarian play, there is nowhere in the screenplay, the acting or the direction the slightest derision or condescension toward the properly attired clerks, male and female, in Mr. Matuschek’s shop, an enclosed cosmos of a Cedric Gibbons– designed Budapest street and shop on the MGM lot. The two other sets, each used only once, are a restaurant and a hospital. But the action never seems stagebound. Unlike the artificial and arbitrary stasis of upper-class characters in parlor plays-into-films, the rigorously observed workaday restrictions on wage slaves, however genteel, makes a virtue of necessity. Every morning except Sunday, the “staff” gathers in front of the shop to await the royal entrance of Mr. Matuschek (Morgan) for the ritualistic unlocking of the portals. The plot soon thickens with intrigue, which is to be resolved eventually with romantic rightness: The two pen-pals (Margaret Sullivan’s Klara Novak and James Stewart’s Alfred Kralik) are united after a massive misunderstanding.

Only the most exquisite delicacy and tact keeps the plot from overheating into overblown whimsy. There is a sad wisdom at work here. When the avuncular Pirovitch (Bressart) is privileged to monitor the progress of the romance, his benign smile of indulgence escapes smugness by suggesting instead a nostalgia for his own lost illusions. Similarly, when Kralik watches the ailing Klara perk up after receiving a letter from her admirer, otherwise unknown to her-but known to us as Kralik himself-his gaze is made tender by the quiet happiness he derives from observing the innocent joy of his beloved. Though Kralik has written the letter in a comically manipulative fashion, he is not any the less moved by Klara’s response. The viewer is made to feel the deep respect that Kralik expresses for Klara’s vulnerability. The decency and generosity revealed here transcend the mechanics of the contrivance. And the stellar electricity generated by Sullavan and Stewart energizes even Lubitsch’s elegant style to a new peak of emotion.

To Be or Not to Be , widely criticized in 1942 as an inappropriately farcical treatment of Nazi terror, bridges the abyss between laughter and horror. Jack Benny, as the Polish actor Joseph Tura, and Sig Ruman, as the hapless SS officer, share the biggest audience guffaws, but the most haunting presence in the film is that of Carole Lombard as Benny’s actress-wife, Mrs. Tura. This was Lombard’s last and best film, and it was released after her death from a plane crash while she was touring to sell War Bonds.