Swimming Pool (2003)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a British author of a highly successful detective series, decided to take up her publisher’s (Charles Dance) offer visit his home in France for some peace and relaxation. Maybe she could even write a book if inspiration came knocking. Sarah expressed that she was unhappy about her work as of late and wanted to do something different. When Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), the publisher’s daughter, also visited the house, she just might be the inspiration Sarah needed to revitalize her passion for writing. Directed by François Ozon, “Swimming Pool” was widely criticized for having a slow burn of a start only to pick up its pace when the story reached its murder mystery. I couldn’t disagree more. What I loved about the film was its ability to make the mundane absolutely fascinating. When Sarah arrived in the isolated French house, the silence was deafening as she strolled around its humble magnificence. We could only hear her footsteps, the rustling of the sheets as she unpacked, and the furniture being dragged across the floor. It was as if the house was slowly being awakened from its deep slumber. With Sarah staring across the balcony, I could feel her thinking. I felt her worrying about her work and her strained relationship with her publisher. She was a confident woman but perhaps she was beginning to doubt herself. When she stepped outside of the house to go shopping or have some wine, there was joy in that as well because Rampling had such expressive eyes. She didn’t have to say a word yet I was able to extract so much emotion from her character. Like a very good book, the story unfolded effortlessly and I was curious what would happen next. On the other hand, Julie was the requisite spice to stir up Sarah’s ennui. Julie was sexy, had a proclivity for danger, and was very sexually active. Sarah was inspired by Julie, sometimes bordering on obsession, and perhaps there was a bit of jealousy there because our protagonist was aging. The beauty of the picture was not every emotion and every glance was explained so it was up to us to translate the images we were seeing. And like the best mystery novels, it assumed that we were intelligent, proactive, and mature audiences. It didn’t shy away from nudity and sexuality which were important components because it has been said that we are most physiologically alive when sex enters the picture. Sarah’s inspiration slowly came to life. The murder mystery was simply an icing on the cake. It provided an extra dimension because Sarah was able to make a career from writing murder mysteries. Ultimately, “Swimming Pool” was a story about an author and her muse. It had a beautiful cinematography, wonderful script, and subjects that were simply firecrackers.
Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I thought this was going to be a light-hearted children’s movie but it turned out to be something more serious. Elle Fanning stars as Phoebe, a precocious 9-year-old girl who was chosen by her drama teacher (Patricia Clarkson) to play Alice for the school play of “Alice in Wonderland.” Phoebe was more at home on stage than she was in the classroom and with her family. She constantly got into trouble for spitting at other kids whenever she would feel like she was cornered and this alarmed the principal (Campbell Scott), a man who obviously had no idea how to communicate with kids and how to treat them. Felicity Huffman plays Phoebe’s mother, an author who felt trapped because she felt like she was incompetent when it came to raising her two daughters. At first, I thought this film was about a child with an obsessive-compulsive disorder; whenever Phoebe wanted something so badly, she would wash her hands until they bled, walk in circles for hours on end, and go up and down the stairs for a certain number of times. But then somewhere in the middle, I thought that it was about childhood depression–that the reason why Phoebe was so engulfed in the play (and excelling at it) and why she saw the characters from “Alice in Wonderland” was because she wanted to escape the pressures of the classroom and the neglect she felt at home. Ultimately, her disorder was revealed at the end of the film and I was disappointed with myself because I should have seen the signs. Regardless, this movie kept me interested from beginning to end because it had a genuine drama in its core. Clarkson absolutely blew me away. I really felt like she cared for the kids by teaching them how to trust themselves, show initiative, and playing on their strengths instead of focusing on their weaknesses. The way she said her lines mesmerized me because her intonations provided real insight on how to live life without caring what other people might think. Her relationship with Phoebe was touching, especially when she consoled Phoebe that being different was perfectly okay, or even great: “At a certain part in your life, probably when too much of it has gone by, you will open your eyes and see yourself for who you are. Especially for everything that made you so different from all the awful normals. And you will say to yourself, “But I am this person.” And in that statement, that correction, there will be a kind of love.” This film undeniably has its flaws, such as its pacing and scenes with the psychiatrist, but the positives far more than outweigh the negatives.
The Witnesses (2007)
★★★ / ★★★★
Director André Téchiné’s “Les témoins” tells the story of how four French people (Johan Libéreau, Sami Bouajila, Emmanuelle Béart and Michel Blanc) deal with a newly-discovered unknown virus back in 1984, currently known as AIDS. Libéreau moves to Paris to live with his sister (Julie Depardieu) but eventually becomes Blanc’s younger non-physical lover. Blanc then introduces Libéreau to a married couple Bouajila and Béart, a cop and children’s books writer, respectively. While the couple allow each other to sleep with whoever they want, the wife has no idea that her husband’s new lover is a man and a much younger guy. This could easily have been a stupid movie about homosexuals getting AIDS if it weren’t for Téchiné’s direction. The topic was dealt with such sensitivity to the point where it’s really about people, regardless of sexual orientation, who happen to get infected by the disease. The film also tackles the idea of that initial fear when the scientific community doesn’t have any idea why people are dying except for the fact that it is a virus and there’s no cure for it. I wasn’t yet alive in 1984 so I don’t really know how it was like when AIDS first became an epidemic. So to see news reels about people avoiding certain foods, certain people (homosexuals, drug addicts and Haitians) and even people who work in the morgue actively staying away from dead bodies were interesting to me. I could definitely relate with this picture, especially with the recent scare regarding swine flu. I was so paranoid about getting a cold because of this thought that I won’t be able to live for very long once I get it. There was a certain sensitivity and respect about the issue but it’s not too light or flowery; it’s just enough to tell a story from a specific point of view. Lastly, I liked the fact that the characters’ sexualities weren’t really a big deal. Unlike most American films that touch upon the subject of homosexuality/bisexuality, this picture did not have any I’m-gay-so-I’m-alienated-and-I’m-self-hating moment. I admired this movie’s focus because it never waivers from the message it wanted to get across even though it had to juggle four very different personalities.