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Riches and Rigmaroles

Tycoon (New Yorker), Swimming Pool (Focus), Jet Lag (Miramax)

Heaven, often stingy in other matters, is generous with paradox. Recurrently through the seventy-year life of the USSR, we got reports of Soviet individuals who had become rich. With the approach of Tycoon from Russia, I hoped to have the contradiction explained. But this film is adapted from a novel about Boris Berezovsky, who certainly became rich but was mostly active in post-Marxist Russia, so it does not answer my old question. It just gives us the chicanery and dishonesty that are globally commonplace in huge business dealings.

The pace is pell-mell, the editing is explosive, and the acting is high on energy. The director was Pavel Lounguine, who first drew notice here in 1990 with Taxi Blues, a wry portrait of a Moscow cab driver unliberated from sour hates by the Marxist enlightenment in which he had lived. Lounguine showed that he could use the film medium like an equestrian showing off a horse, and in Tycoon he continues with glittering dash. The trouble is that he overdashes.

Instead of telling its story in an orderly way, the film pirouettes (something like Francesco Rosi’s films about Italian plutocrats, The Mattei Affair and Illustrious Corpses). It starts with the murder of the tycoon, Platon Makovski. Then it flashes backward and forward in time, with the murder as the fulcrum, each sequence dated, the whole rigmarole attempting to aggrandize the basically banal story with rococo cinematics. We learn about fast deals with automobiles, and about Makovski’s maneuvers with a provincial governor who wants to become president, and naturally there is a dollop of sex. But we become so distracted by the jigsaw effect that soon we are more concerned with the assemblage itself than with what it is about.

The cast, as is usually true of Russian actors, is vigorous, with Vladimir Mashkov credibly reptilian as Makovski. But the anomaly of wealth in the high Soviet days is untouched, so Tycoon does not fulfill the promise that—admittedly—it never made but that was nonetheless attendant. All that it ultimately shows us, in its frenetic way, is that the decline of incompetent communism into an incompetent capitalism opened fissures for crooks. There needs no ghost come from Lenin’s tomb to tell us this.

In 2001 Francois Ozon made Under the Sand, a fascinatingly ambiguous film about a woman’s heartbreak because of her husband’s death, with Charlotte Rampling in a taciturn performance deeper than anything she had ever done. Now here is Ozon again, after an amusing artificiality called 8 Women, returning to the ambiguous with Swimming Pool, and again with Charlotte Rampling. But this time Ozon has drunk too deeply of the ambiguous. His screenplay, done with Emmanuele Bernheim, declines from the mysterious to the utterly incomprehensible. The story doesn’t develop: it skids.

The distributors say in the press kit, “We would appreciate your not revealing the film’s secrets. Thank you.” No, thank you, dear distributors: I’m glad that I am bound to secrecy because to disclose the ending, or endings, might imply that I understood them. The acute pity of the matter is that, until those secrets are added, Swimming Pool is entrancing.

Rampling, again tacitly deep, plays a successful English writer of crime thrillers. The woman feels herself burned out, and her London publisher offers her his house in southern France so that she can luxuriate, recharge her batteries, and write. The house is just what every country house in France ought to be in every film: we immediately feel cheated not to be basking in its charm, with Rampling if possible. (Among other reasons, she is fluent in French. ) The house has, as the title promises, a pool, at first covered with a canvas. Rampling does not uncover the pool: she just sets furiously to work on her new book. No kind of drama invades the film up to this point, and this fact does not seriously bother us. Ozon and Rampling understand each other. Silent sequences, in which she does various ordinary things in the house or goes to a nearby village for lunch or is simply enthralled by the landscape, are filled with the being of the complex yet quiet woman that Rampling is playing.

Then the drama begins, and for a while it adds to the pleasure. The publisher has a daughter. Rampling knew of her, but she did not expect this aggressively nubile young blonde woman to turn up. And the daughter, Frenchborn and resident, did not expect Rampling to be there. They do not take to each other, but they get on moderately well despite the daughter’s penchant for rock music and for gonadic male visitors. Of course the daughter rolls back the pool’s canvas cover. This is a fairly patent symbol, but Ozon is otherwise reticently provocative, simply juxtaposing these two women: the trim, reserved Englishwoman and the often bare-breasted, frank, yet disturbingly intelligent daughter. Several kinds of possibility begin to flicker in our minds.

This is precisely when the film dampens them by piling on events that change the tenor from the intriguing to the pedestrian. Also, there is a blatant echo of the sort of books that Rampling’s novelist writes. My lips—and my computer— are sealed, but at least I can note that the first sixty of this film’s 102 minutes are the Ozon-Rampling duo at their suggestive best. Ludivine Sagnier, who was in 8 Women, is utterly genuine in every turn of the daughter’s moods, and Charles Dance, though only briefly visible as the London publisher, fills his niche with proper flavor. May Ozon and Rampling do more at the level of this film’s first hour. Or maybe they could amputate the last part of Swimming Pool and finish the film as it deserves.

Just enough room left for a confession: I enjoyed Jet Lag. This French pastry, directed by Danile Thompson, who wrote it with her son Christopher, is a meet-cute comedy in excelsis. Or very near excelsis. And it’s not Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson: it’s Juliette Binoche and Jean Reno. This means that we are watching two skillful actors on a busman’s holiday, instead of enduring two tyros at their dismal best.

The story begins at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, where scores of passengers are delayed by strikes. Among them are Binoche and Reno. She is a cosmetician, he is a food specialist, and these two strangers are brought together by a cell phone. Following the ground rules of this sort of story, they don’t click with each other at first sight. But circumstances—and we can almost hear the authors chuckling as they concocted them—force the pair together, up to the point where they share a hotel room, platonically, because of the layover. (Possibly not the right word.)

The only complaint about this slickly executed piece is that the two characters never acknowledge that they are in a stock movie situation, which they certainly would have known. That consciousness might have made the bonbon even tastier. Anyway, it is pleasant to spend time with these two. Reno, fortyish, is an expert actor who will probably become another Jean Rochefort. Binoche is an increasingly expert actress who is also, by any kind of test, a twenty-three-carat film star.

This article originally ran in the July 7 & 14, 2003 issue of the magazine.