British mystery writer Samantha Morton (Charlotte Rampling), having achieved some success with a series of books featuring the same detective, is beginning to go stale. Her books are old-fashioned and for her, at this point, unsatisfying. Fame is a bother, since it reminds her of how alienated she has become from her work. On the subway to her publisher’s office, she rebuffs a fan’s approach with an icy “I am not who you think I am.”
No, you won’t find much of Samantha Morton in her Inspector Durwell series and she’s ready to write something a little more personal, even if she doesn’t know what. Then there’s the matter of not feeling relevant anymore; she’s pushing 60 and her audience is aging with her, as she is bluntly reminded when she meets her publisher’s newest hot property and he manages to mention more than once, and without conscious malice, what a great fan of the Durwell books his mother is.
Morton’s publisher, John (Charles Dance, a master of untrustworthy suavity), responds with professional concern to her discontent and recommends that she spend some time at his house in the French countryside, whose summery and bucolic charms will, presumably, induce her to get some serious work done. There’s a somewhat flirtatious familiarity between Samantha and John, suggesting that they have had an affair at some time in the past or are having one now or are on the verge of beginning one. In any event, John says he will join her soon after she arrives.
At first, her hoped-for idyll seems to be just that. The house is comfy; the nearby village has an inviting marketplace and small outdoor café; and her bedroom overlooks a swimming pool, though for now it’s covered with a tarp. Samantha begins to uncoil a bit in these enticing surroundings and, as we watch her scarf down some French confection at the café with a satisfied smile, we begin to detect signs of an appetite beneath her carapace of British reserve. But soon a snake arrives in the garden in the form of John’s daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), a somewhat zaftig Lolita who likes to blare loud music, leave a mess in the kitchen, lounge topless by the now un-tarped pool and bring home strange men — sometimes literally strange — for noisy sex.
Samantha, understandably, is not amused, not only because Julie’s loutish sluttishness is shattering her workplace calm, but because she wasn’t aware that John had a daughter. But after her initial repulsion, she finds herself more and more interested in the girl’s behavior, first as a source for a different kind of novel than she’s ever written before, but ultimately for more unsavory reasons. Are we in The Servant territory, where a bad seed enters a household and corrupts its ostensible master by appealing to his repressed appetites? Sort of.
This is French writer-director François Ozon’s first English-language film and it reunites him with Rampling, the star of his most satisfying feature yet, Under the Sand, and with Sand’s co-writer, the novelist Emmanuelle Bernheim. Bernheim also co-wrote the screenplay of Claire Denis’ recent Friday Night, which was adapted from one of her novels, and one can see a similar thread of intent running through all three films.
Bernheim’s subject is the dreamlife of women under duress. In Sand, a woman enters an alternate reality to quell the grief of losing her husband, while in the Denis film a woman on the eve of making a serious commitment wanders into a night of free-falling but unharmful and romantic sex. Pool’s move into fantasy, detectable only in retrospect, is precipitated by a phone call Samantha makes to John asking him when he’s going to join her. His brisk dismissal of the question — he has a lot of work to do; there’s somebody on the other line — makes it clear he has no intention of coming to France and Samantha’s deep disappointment serves as a creative spur. It’s soon after the phone call that the wayward daughter shows up.
From there on, things are not what they seem (“I am not who you think I am”). This is not really giving anything away, because the key to understanding what has been happening doesn’t arrive until the film’s last few minutes. By then, Samantha has written up her summer experience and presented it to John in lieu of a new Inspector Durwell opus.
John is displeased — “it’s too subtle and abstract,” he says. The film, though, is neither, being instead clever and, toward the end, rather ridiculous. But for the most part, it’s a convoluted and interesting story of revenge, though you may have to mull it over a while afterward to figure out who has gotten revenge on whom and why.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].