Swimming Pool is an entertaining act of provocation that lingers in the mind like iridescent fabric: Turn it one way and it yields this; turn it another and it's a different story. After his recent 8 Women, the country-house whodunit as musical camp, director Fran‡ois Ozon returns to the haunting enigmas of Under the Sand, melded with the portents of mayhem found in his earlier shocker See the Sea. Overriding the entire construct of his new film is the notion: How much of this is true, how much merely a writer's overheated imaginings, and where does one begin and the other leave off?

The writer in question is Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), a best-selling spinner of mysteries (inspired, according to Ozon, by English author Ruth Rendell.) This tightly wound, reclusive woman, who lives with her elderly father and fights a drinking habit, seems to exist for the stories she invents. When she hits a creative dry patch, her publisher (Charles Dance) offers the use of his country house in the Luberon, where she can recharge her batteries. Inspired by the beauty and calm, Sarah plugs in her laptop to embark on a new book. Rampling convincingly conveys the business of a writer writing, not known for its cinematic scope.

Sarah's creative trance is broken by the arrival of her publisher's daughter, Julie (Ludivine Sagnier, hottie of the month, her bikini-clad bod on every bus ad in Cannes). Sloppy about the men she beds and the dirty dishes she leaves, Julie infuriates Sarah. But gradually the writer starts to bond with her raunchy housemate, suggesting a Sapphic interlude. Sarah is more interested, however, in cannibalizing Julie's life for her novel in progress. When the violence foreshadowed earlier finally erupts, it may--or may not--exist outside Sarah's pages.

The camera loves the seemingly age-proof face of Charlotte Rampling--in fact, her classic features with the signature hooded eyes outshine the youthful charm of Sagnier's. Ozon's two muses engage in a mesmerizing dance of hide and seek, each assuming traits of the other. This director excels at ominous suggestion through troubling images--just as the backpacker's red tent in See the Sea went from banal to menacing, a repeated shot of someone gazing down on a prone sunbather, only the watcher's legs in view, assumes chilling overtones. Certainly, the well-worn theme of a writer conjuring a story could become a clich. Yet Ozon takes us inside the very process of story-making. And he brilliantly interweaves the imagined and the 'real' so they shift and shimmer to form a single layer, like the wind-kissed surface of the swimming pool. A final whiplash of a twist sends you back to Go to ponder just what it was you witnessed.

--Erica Abeel