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Nude musing

The writing life is examined in a sexy French film and a ludicrous American one



Why is it acceptable for children--or anyone, for that matter--to watch so much appalling violence in the movies, while a film with an exposed female nipple automatically becomes absolutely-not-for-children? This was one question on my mind as I watched Swimming Pool, a sexy, thoughtful if not terribly thrilling thriller from the young French director Francois Ozon.

The only answers I could think of were the obvious ones: We're a nation that likes to make war, not love. Any sexual representation that isn't couched in terms of a Delta Force hardbody ("washboard abs," etc.) or a super-size cartoon like Pamela Anderson is too real and too close to our own vulnerabilities. So it is that the sissified, not-in-the-coalition French seem so sexually sophisticated--or decadent--depending on your point of view.

As one might have surmised by now, Swimming Pool features nudity--in both male and female styles--and lots of it. Chief among the unclothed is one Ludivine Sagnier, a pouty blonde who has appeared in two other Ozon films but is getting her first lead here as a teenage temptress who wreaks havoc on the premises of a French chateau. However, the film is told from the point of view of another woman on the property, an uptight and humorless English writer named Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling) who has come to stay on the property to kick her writer's block (the film is mostly in English, with a smattering of French).

The ever-glorious Rampling--she of the hooded eyes and sly smile--plays the frosty writer, and is surprisingly convincing as a woman who's succumbed to her inner frump. Sarah is a classic English woman and whodunit writer, cut from the cloth of Agatha Christie and P.D. James. She'd traveled to France, expecting to be in the house alone, for the summer, so she's dismayed to find herself sharing it with the owner's lubricious, wayward daughter Julia (Sagnier), a flouncing slacker who's given to poolside exhibitionism and having noisy, drunken sex with a different middle-aged man every night.

However, the only thing that tops Sarah's disgust at Julia's sluttiness is her fascination with it. The younger woman notices and snaps, "You're just a frustrated English lady who writes about dirty things but you never do them." (Meow.)

But writers, real writers, are condemned to live on the outside, imagining the lives of other, more interesting, people, and how they live, breathe, fornicate and kill. And so it goes that Sarah insinuates herself into Julia's confidence so that she can turn the material of the young woman's troubled life into fiction. Soon enough, art turns into life as a dead body appears on the grounds of the estate, forcing Sarah to step down from her author's perch and do some awfully dirty things.

The director of this film, Francois Ozon, is rapidly becoming the new workhorse of French cinema--churning out a film a year--and his themes of women, nice houses and murder are starting to assert themselves. Last year's 8 Women can be described as Agatha Christie meets The Women (in which Sagnier appeared among Deneuve, Huppert and other Gallic divas). Charlotte Rampling starred in Ozon's 2000 effort, Under the Sand, which was a lovely and low-key ghost story; a meditation on death and its denial. But anyone looking for more of where Swimming Pool came from should hunt down See the Sea, the nasty little flick that put Ozon on the map in 1997, when he was 30 years old.

With his tales of beautiful women and nasty deaths, Ozon is turning into a reliable showman. He's often compared to Hitchcock, but his films are less crafted to shock than those of le Hitch. The openly gay Ozon also seems to like women, though his interest is human rather than fetishistic or sexual. And no 58-year-old actress would have trusted Hitchcock with a full frontal nude scene, as Rampling does Ozon.

Swimming Pool lacks the skillful staging of a Hitchcock thriller, but it has a perverse intelligence all of its own. When Ozon finally lays his cards on the table, Swimming Pool turns into a quite shapely meditation on writers and the ways in which they receive and dismiss their muses.

At last spring's Academy Awards, Adrien Brody became the youngest man to win the Best Actor Oscar for his stellar performance in Roman Polanski's The Pianist. Brody cut quite a figure at the ceremony, sporting lovingly tousled hair and a frightening spray-on tan. When he bestowed a Valentino-like kiss upon his presenter, Halle Berry, he became the story of the evening.

Brody's ascension to the pantheon was a long time coming. Now 30 years old, he'd done excellent supporting work in such films as The Thin Red Line, Bread and Roses and Summer of Sam prior to making The Pianist. But he also made films like Love the Hard Way.

This insipid and derivative little movie was shot in 2000 and officially released in 2001, and only the presence of an Oscar winner can explain why such an indifferently written and directed film is now in distribution. The story, about a New York hoodlum and his tragic self-destructiveness, is bogus from start to finish and worse, it suggests the inner life of a suburban preppie filmmaker more than an actual street punk.

Initially, the film has a patina of verisimilitude that suggests the potential for a decent story--one that lasts for the length of an inviting establishing shot at the film's outset that places us in a large, underfurnished Brooklyn loft. The loft's owner is Brody's Jack, a shakedown artist who wears a snakeskin jacket that looks like something Nicolas Cage threw away in Wild at Heart. Jack earns his living running a racket in which he extorts money from foreign tourists by dressing as a cop and busting them in their hotel rooms with hookers (who are in on the scam). We know Jack is tough because he smokes indoors and picks up women by belittling them. But Jack is no ordinary hoodlum. You see, in his spare time, he sits in a rented cubicle and works on his anguished novel.

By making his hoodlum here a writer, director Peter Sehr shows his hand. I don't know anything about him, or about Chuo Wang, a bad boy Chinese author who supposedly wrote the novel that inspired this story. (Any number of crappy TV shows could have been ripped off for the sake of this effort, and a couple of excellent films, too, including Scorsese's Mean Streets.) But what the makers of this film are doing is revealing their longings for authenticity. They want to actually be the bookish criminals that they're portraying in this film. Francois Ozon pokes fun at this idea in Swimming Pool, but here they're taking it seriously.

Love the Hard Way says a lot about the preferred self-image of many young male novelists, filmmakers and musicians, and here it is:

1) They're middle to upper middle class white guys who ...
2) Wish they'd been abandoned as children ...
3) And left on the streets to grow up Charles Dickens style ...
4) So they could become authentic hoodlums ...
5) Who treat girls like dirt ...
6) For which they're rewarded with lots of sex ...
7) And after doing a little time up the river, they'll write those brilliant Celine-like novels about their beautifully fucked-up lives.

This would merely be eye-rollingly laughable if the film's treatment of Jack's girlfriend Clare wasn't so obnoxiously misogynistic. When we meet Clare, she's a repressed biology student at uptown Columbia University who has an implausible part-time job at a downtown art movie theater. Jack picks her up, beds her down and then tries to get rid of her. But he can't, because she really loves him. And even though Jack is horrible to her in return he, you know, really loves her but doesn't think he's good enough for her. So, the smitten Clare wills herself down to his level, eventually becoming a barebackin' streetwalker and attempting suicide.

And how is Brody in this unfortunate film? Well, a lot of being a good movie actor is about having an interesting face and Brody's gaunt cheeks, weary eyes and free-floating eyebrows certainly qualify him as a watchable actor. In Love the Hard Way, he's got that same face, a face that can convince us that he's a writer in the city. Now Brody may be an Oscar winner--he may even be a good actor--but he can't convince us for a minute that he's a mook or a goon or a hood. When he waves a gun in people's faces, we cringe with embarrassment for him. Brody's demeanor shifts from scene to scene: Here he's doing Breathless-era Belmondo, there he's doing Mean Streets-era De Niro. He even does a little hotel room soft-core heavy breathing in several love scenes with Charlotte Ayanna's Clare.

Perhaps to his credit, Brody doesn't seem to be taking any of this too seriously. We certainly can't blame him. EndBlock

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