What made you want to shoot in English?
Given that the film is about an English writer and that Charlotte Rampling was cast in the part, it seemed only natural that the film's language should be English. And anyway I thought it might be fun to try to direct actors in English which I speak imperfectly. Charlotte speaks French, so the difficulty did not seem insurmountable. Also, there is a play on language. I wrote the screenplay in French, then had it translated. Shifting into English altered the script, because some of the French nuances didn't come across in English. We had to find corresponding notions and these did not necessarily relate to the expressions I'd used in the first draft.
How did you go about defining Sarah Morton's character?
The character of Marie in Under the Sand drew on Charlotte Rampling's own character. With this film, the character needed inventing from scratch. The part is pure composition. Charlotte isn’t remotely similar to Sarah Morton in real life. But the part was written for her and only after she agreed to play it, did we go into pre-production. Pascaline Chavanne, the costume designer, and I looked at photographs of Patricia Highsmith, Sarah Morton needs solitude for her work, she needs to lock herself up in a comfortable house, go on a diet, live by certain rules. Then all at once, reality bursts in on her. Her first reaction, needless to say, is rejection. She turns in on herself. Then she decides to incorporate this new reality into the work she is engaged in. Sooner or later, artists have to come to terms with reality.
What was the starting-point for Swimming Pool ?
After 8 Women, I felt an urge to return to something more intimate and simple, with fewer characters. Naturally, I wanted to work with actresses who were familiar to me, with whom relations would be less complicated. Charlotte Rampling came to mind immediately because Under the Sand had been a fine experience for both of us. Originally, Ludivine's part was going to be a boy's. But I thought it would be more interesting to deal with a relationship between two women and I was especially keen to explore the kind of relationship I had touched on in 8 Women between Gaby (Catherine Deneuve) and Louise (Emmanuelle Béart). The decision to cast Charlotte Rampling opposite Ludivine Sagnier provided an opportunity to examine a mother/daughter relationship and also to confront an experienced actress with a young one. I have a sense that I gave Ludivine insufficient attention on 8 Women, compared to the other actresses. And also, she was playing a tomboy. Now I wanted to give her a part that would be more fun, a sexy bimbo part. As a result, she got herself into shape physically, becoming a kind of Mediterranean Marilyn Monroe.
What made you want to make a film about the creative process?
I kept being asked, "How can you make so many films one after another? What inspires you?" It occurred to me that the best way of answering these questions might be to project myself into the character of a female English novelist, rather than offering an analysis of myself as a film-maker. Where do writers find their inspiration? How does one make up a story? What is the connection between fiction and reality? Ruth Rendell, Patricia Cornwell, PD James... There is something quite masculine about all these writers. They also give the impression that life stopped in the 1970’s. Charlotte agreed to cut her hair, to alter herself in that general direction. As the story progresses, her character's clothes and attitudes develop. She blossoms and becomes more feminine. She becomes luminous. I regard Charlotte as an actress who expands on everyday gestures; there is nothing narcissistic about the way she sees herself.
Why make her a mystery writer?
Because I think there is a connection between mystery writers and screenwriters: style matters less than narrative, plot and mounting clues. These are what lead us to the murderer. Screenwriting is the same: an accumulation of elements designed to bring the shoot to life. Since Agatha Christie, there has been a tradition of female thriller writing in England, writers who enjoy describing particularly unsettling or horrible characters and situations. I met with François Rivière, who is an expert on these novelists, and he was able to tell me about their psychology and the rumours surrounding the drinking, the closet lesbianism and the fascination with perversion. Before shooting, I suggested to Ruth Rendell that she might like to come up with the story for Sarah to be writing in the film. I sent her my script and she answered by return, very frostily, assuming that I was asking her to novelize the screenplay: she told me she was perfectly capable of writing her own stories, thank you. Charlotte Rampling found this highly amusing. She said that Sarah Morton would have reacted exactly the same way.
Why the long delineation of Sarah's character?
In fact she is characterised in two parts. The first happens in London, where Sarah is seen in her own environment, with her relationship with her publisher, the fact that she is an old maid who lives with her father, her fondness for drink… Then there's a second, showing her arrival in the Luberon in Provence, and how she settles down to work. I feel that it is important to show all these things, even though it makes for a somewhat unusual pace because the action proper is delayed: one needs to enter into the character's behaviour, the way she sits down to work, the practical business of writing in a specific context, the little details of habit. The film is governed by the pace of the creative process: things gradually come together and then quicken in the final half-hour which is full of surprises and emotional tension and is extremely concentrated.
Right up to the end, you give us no hint that Julie might be a character invented by Sarah?
Speaking as a director, I wanted to show an imaginary world in as realistic a way as possible - flat - so that fantasy and reality are shown as equivalents. I feel that when you are inventing worlds, things soon get very mixed up: when you tell a story or make a film, you identify with the characters to such an extent that you end up sharing their thoughts and feelings, you feel the same emotions as they do. In other words, in the creative process, things are never simple: what is true, what is not true? What distinguishes reality from fantasy? This theme brings us back to Under the Sand in which the character also confused fantasy and reality. But in this case, the fantasy is creative and therefore applied and channelled. It is not madness.
You pay careful attention to the way the writer's body is altered as she writes…
Yes. I wanted to use the cliché of an elderly English lady uneasy with her own body as a starting-point — even though one eventually learns that Sarah must have been quite at ease with herself when she was young. But I also wanted this mature body to seem desirable. More desirable even than Julie's. At the same time, as the book is the product of Sarah's imagination, one could say that she is arranging these things in her mind… Anyway, the main point was that I wanted Sarah and Julie's bodies to affect one another. As the story progresses, Sarah casts off her clothes; her style of dress becomes more feminine; life in some way returns to her. Whereas Julie abandons artifice. She becomes more pure. She returns to childhood, having been a very aggressive, a very sexual young woman. There is a kind of "exchange of fluids" between the two women.
And the music?
Usually, I bring in a composer in the final stages of editing. This time, since the film was about the process of writing a book, I thought it might be interesting to give the composer the screenplay so that his music could suggest the content of the book. At first, the tune seems fragmented, barely a few notes. Only gradually do they work themselves into a finished theme. I also wanted this theme to be played on a variety of instruments throughout the film to suggest a passage from one genre to another: a saga, a thriller, a psycho-drama, a portrait of a lady, a writer's biography…
What does the swimming pool stand for?
The swimming pool stands for whatever anyone wants to see in it. I have often filmed water, usually the ocean which is associated in my mind with shedding one's inhibitions, or with a certain sense of fear. In this instance, I was interested in the swimming pool as texture and also as water imprisoned. Swimming pools, unlike the ocean, are manageable and controlled. The swimming pool is Julie's realm. It's like a movie-screen against which images are projected and into which a character penetrates. Sarah Morton takes time before entering the pool: she does not do so until Julie has become a source of inspiration — and until the swimming pool is at last clean.