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Somebody’s watching me: Sagnier in Swimming Pool.

Dangerous Game
By Laura Leon

Swimming Pool
Directed by François Ozon

When first we encounter British mystery novelist Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), she is faded, grim, as tightly wound as the belt fastening her sensible raincoat. Her mouth is a pale slash across a lined, tired face. But a fellow subway traveler easily recognizes her as the author of her favorite mystery series—the Inspector Durwell books—and gushes forth her admiration. Fixing a stern look upon this unfortunate fan, Morton insists that she is most decidedly not who she appears to be. How apt and yet appropriately teasing a line this is soon becomes apparent. After all, this is Swimming Pool, a film by that lover of ambiguity, François Ozon.

As with 2001’s Under the Sand, writer-director Ozon is adroit at layering seemingly minuscule details into early stretches of the film, details that build to augment our understanding of individual characters. Sarah is in the midst of a midlife career and personal crisis. Her books are selling well, mostly to older readers, but she’s tired of their formulaic success. Still, her publisher and suspected sometime lover, John Bosload (Charles Dance) squelches her ideas for trying something new, instead offering her rest and relaxation at his villa in the South of France. Between the time she leaves his office and arrives in France, we observe that Sarah takes a drink to get through a meeting, finishes off her aging dad’s whiskey, subsists on buckets of yogurt and—when feeling virtuous—diet Coke, doesn’t give much thought to Christianity, and is fastidious in her work habits. All this is in only 10 fluid minutes of movie.

Sarah’s resolve is sorely tested when John’s illegitimate daughter Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) drops by for an unexpected stay at the villa. Julie is everything Sarah is not: French, blonde, luscious, promiscuous, utterly natural and uninhibited. The immediate clash bubbles, fermenting with tense scenes that underscore not just the two women’s outward differences, but issues of age, morality and sexuality. Sarah clearly resents the fact that Julie is lithe and libidinous, a real head-turner, while she is “of a certain age.” Nevertheless, her repulsion is sprinkled with unmitigated interest. She spies on Julie as she brings home an endless succession of losers and wannabe lotharios for a drunken screw. She can’t help but stare with envy and wonder at the way Julie nonchalantly walks around naked. Soon, the author realizes that her housemate is perfect fodder for a new novel, and she begins ransacking the younger woman’s belongings, looking for clues to reveal who and what she is. A detente is formed during which Sarah pumps Julie for background. Still, Julie is a powder keg, combustible when crossed, and this lends an intriguing, suspenseful element to the story.

While Swimming Pool does eventually involve a murder and its cover-up, Ozon is more interested in allowing his two fine actresses to examine the nuances of their relationships as well as the roles of women at different points in life. Indeed, jSomebody’s watching me: Sagnier in Swimming Pool.ust as our spines begin to tingle at the idea that Sarah, in the service of her nascent book, is going to egg Julie on to do more and more dangerous acts, Ozon backs away and focuses instead on the jealousy between Sarah and Julie when they become interested in the same man. Infuriatingly, he then backtracks from this—a fascinating scene in which nubile Julie dances with the man, who then clearly has a more entertaining time dancing with the sweetly clumsy Sarah—into the part of the story when the celebrated author of murder novels helps cover up a murder. At this point, the movie takes on menacing tones, and we come to wonder whether Sarah has set herself up to become Julie’s next victim.

Ozon always has been an unconventional filmmaker, and his choices in Swimming Pool are no exception. While we’re led to believe this is some great mystery, he’s more concerned with his main character’s criminal and sexual rite of passage. As with his best work, the theme of competing realities pervades, and provides a shocking, if too-neat, twist. However, Ozon’s love of ambiguity shades to some extent a less-than-compelling plot. The film does leave indelible memories of two outstanding actresses giving brave performances. But while you may exit the theater excitedly discussing its possible meanings, by the next morning, much of what you’ve seen has drifted away, like ripples in a swimming pool.

Shadow Dancing

Assassination Tango
Directed by Robert Duvall

Written and directed by Robert Duvall, Assassination Tango is an interestingly eccentric star vehicle in which Duvall plays a very strange hitman. Although the actor is over 70, it isn’t his age that makes John J. Anderson, a contract killer employed by the Brooklyn mob, such an odd duck: Duvall is remarkably fit and trim (though concerns about John’s advancing years are raised by his Mafiosi employer, played by Frank Gio). Rather, it’s his interests: John once owned a string of beauty parlors, dotes obsessively on his young stepdaughter, and is a passionate fan of ballroom dancing. Sent to Argentina for a politically sensitive whack job, John becomes enraptured by a local variant of the tango. “It’s a different animal,” says Manuela (Luciana Pedraza), a beautiful dancer who catches his fancy.

After promising his “almost wife,” Maggie (Kathy Baker), that he’ll be back in time for her daughter’s birthday, John is stuck in Buenos Aires for three weeks waiting for the arrival of his mark, a general with ties to the dictatorship. The general, explains his dicey connection (Ruben Blades), is a murderer who caused his countrymen great suffering. But John doesn’t want to hear about it; to him, killing people is just a job, and he takes pride in his impersonal efficiency. Eschewing politics, he spends his downtime wooing the aloof but not unreceptive Manuela. John has a psychotic temper straight out of Scorsese, but around women, he is immensely tender, and his respectful encounters with Manuela have a documentary-style naturalism (which isn’t surprising, since Pedraza, who is barely 30, is Duvall’s real-life live-in love). The tango footage, especially John’s erotic fantasy of partnering Manuela on the dance floor, is reverentially rendered, while his professional activities within the city serve as a travelogue to Argentina’s impoverished but vibrant cultural life.

But what does this have to with his job and the mobsters back home? Superficially, not much, other than to show that John’s duality of personality is an advantage in his profession. Like the tango, his methodology requires practiced precision and total immersion. The crime sequences are sharply realistic, to the degree that it makes the viewer curious as to what this character-driven crime drama might’ve been like if the psychological making—and unmaking—of a killer had been fully developed. Played by Duvall as being on the brink of madness, John undoubtedly is a dangerous man, at times fascinatingly dangerous. (“He was really out of it,” says one witness to his lethal handiwork.)

But the tango takes up a lot of screen time, as does John’s ambiguous romancing of Manuela, which occurs at the expense of his phony (but more integral) relationship with Maggie. Pedraza is a compelling screen presence, yet as might be expected from someone who has done four films with Francis Ford Coppola, Duvall is more adept at writing dialogue for tough guys than he is for women. A less powerful effort than his writing-directing-acting tour-de-force, The Apostle, Duvall’s Assassination Tango is most involving as a field day for this mesmerizingly interior actor, and as a glimpse into one man’s private obsessions.

—Ann Morrow

Miami Vices

Bad Boys II
Directed by Michael Bay

There are artists for whom there is no hope. Old-timers may remember the song “Don Henley Must Die” by Mojo Nixon. Written from a place of despair at the prospect of an Eagles reunion, Nixon begged the gods: “Don’t let him get back together with Glen Frey.” (The gods looked down and laughed.) One wishes that someone would update this musical sentiment for the filmmaking team of director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Unfortunately, “die” and “Bruckheimer” do not rhyme.

When last we met this gruesome twosome at the multiplex, Bay and Bruckheimer had trashed history and trivialized war in Pearl Harbor. This collaboration was a logical progression in their partnership, following such elephantine crap as The Rock and Armageddon. Pearl Harbor was supposed to bring them glory; instead they reaped only the usual bad reviews and disappointing box-office returns.

Bruckheimer and Bay decided to go back to basics and make a sequel to their first (and least obnoxious) film together, Bad Boys. No more grandiose historical themes; this time it would just be big laughs and bigger explosions.

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, who star as a pair of Miami drug cops, make a terrific team. Lawrence is Marcus, the neurotic nonviolent one, while Smith is Mike, the shoot first, second and third (and then run over the corpse) cowboy. They do get a chance to run some great comic routines—there’s an especially funny bit when they try to unnerve a kid who is dating Marcus’ daughter—in between the film’s hundreds of senseless deaths. Therein lies the problem: the endless bloodbath.

There’s a plot, unfortunately. A Cuban druglord (Jordi Mollà, doing a bad Scarface caricature) is importing ecstasy in enormous quantities. The DEA, lead by Marcus’ sister Syd (Gabrielle Union) is after him. A Russian gangster (Peter Stormare, in another hilarious scene-chewing turn) is after him. And, of course, Marcus and Mike are on his trail, too. With that many cops and crooks, you need a program to keep track of who’s killin’ whom.

There are three spectacular car chases and four bloody shootouts. These sequences are, as per usual for Bay, incomprehensible. Tastelessness is the order of the day, from the big-breasted corpse in a mortuary to the eye-candy use of the otherwise estimable Union. (In one scene, Marcus taunts Syd that the DEA is using her as booty-bait; without irony, Bay keeps Union in a bikini for the rest of the picture.)

The best thing to be said about Bad Boys II? It could have been worse.

—Shawn Stone

The Spy Is Falling

Johnny English
Directed by Peter Howitt

What on the surface sounds like a mild remix of Austin Powers is, in fact, Johnny English, a clever—but not too clever—trifle that provides fans of Rowan Atkinson enough comic nourishment to get us through to his next television series. For those who are not familiar, Atkinson is the English comedian who played the raffish scoundrel Blackadder in a popular ’80s series, and then Bean, a decidedly nasty sort, in the early ’90s. He’s got a rubbery face that at a moment’s notice can go from looking slightly debonair to downright deranged, and he’s as gifted at delivering verbal bon mots as he is performing pratfalls and other slap-shtick. In Johnny English, he gets the chance to demonstrate all of his many talents, and to a large extent, it’s worth the effort.

Granted, this is no groundbreaking or wildly original tale. Simply put, all of England’s best James Bondian secret agents have been killed, leaving only Secret Service paper pusher Johnny English to take on the task of defending the great realm from the likes of Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich), a French pretender to the throne. Aided by his trusty assistant Bough (Ben Miller), English proceeds to make a mockery of every lesson in the spy rule book, often with very humorous results. The trouble with this kind of movie is that in describing some of those results, you give away a good deal of the fun. Suffice it to say that nothing is quite as enjoyable as watching Atkinson work his way through any number of embarrassingly bad attempts at patriotism.

Atkinson is matched well in the comic department by Malkovich’s audaciously weird Monsieur Sauvage. One has to wonder if this film bears the OK from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who derided the French for not gamely going off to war with us last spring. Miller, too, is very funny, in a quiet, understated sidekick sort of way. What is too weird for words is the casting of Natalie Imbruglia as Lorna, a fellow spy and would-be love interest for our man Johnny. Sure, she’s lovely, but her acting makes one pine for the days of the comparatively Shakespearian Barbara Feldman on the old series Get Smart.

—Laura Leon


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