The Swimming Pool; 3 Films of Illusions & Delusions

I just recently saw, for the first time, the French film, “La Piscine,” with Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, and Jane Birkin. I don’t know how I missed it. It was made in 1968, and although it’s look and  feel is so typical of French films of that time, it was remarkably undated. And lots of fun to watch!  I loved it. Moreover, it made me immediately think of two other films that are focused around a swimming pool. One was the 2003 French film, starring Charlotte Rampling, directed by Francois Ozon, called “The Swimming Pool.”  ( It goes back and forth between French and English.) I saw this film when it first came out, and enjoyed it, though not quite as much as “La Piscine,” to which it definitely owes a debt. The third film, also made in 1968, is the great Burt Lancaster one, called “The Swimmer.” This has always been one of my favorites. It is adopted from a short story by John Cheever, with all his typical skewering of upper-middle class suburbia, and is considered one of Lancaster’s best performances.

In all three films, the symbolic nature of water, via the swimming pool is central. Water, for us humans, is the source. All life came from it, and we incubate in it for nine months. It is usually associated with release, by the fact that we float in it, and with childhood and innocence. The pull back to childhood, or the womb, is also part of a journey through time, to our more primitive, uninhibited, selves. This is the metaphor so brilliantly used by Joseph Conrad, in “Heart of Darkness,” and that appears often in literature. Remember, “Apocalypse Now” is a retelling of “Heart of Darkness,” where the journey up river is one to an increasingly more primitive, instinctual, and violent self. The swimming pools in all three of the films, function that way as well. The pool allows the characters to have an access to their unconscious and their fantasies, that they don’t otherwise enjoy. This loss of inhibition, however, becomes a dangerous channel to the inner depths of the mind, heart and soul. It has chaotic consequences for all concerned, and shows how tenuous a hold we all have on the placid surface of our own, “swimming pools.”

If you don’t like languidly paced, preposteriously beautiful, upper-middle classs French people, flirting, having sex, eating, drinking, and smoking incessantly, in a Saint-Tropez villa, in August, photographed to make you drool, with an implausibly motivated crime of passion, ( a love triangle, bien sur,)  you can forget this Jacques Deray, 1968 classic, “La Piscine.”  Not much happens, but it unfolds gorgeously. The opening sequence, around the pool, is one of the hottest and most visually interesting you’ll ever see. Most of the action unfolds there, around the pool. Lots of smoldering, flirting, competition, internal reflection, and philosophising. Placid or churning, the surface of the water echoes and presages the characters’ interior emotional landscape. There is as much, of course, metaphorically, below the surface, as on top. It’s all washed down with a jazzy, Michel Legrand score, interspersed with a dash of period French pop. The film was highly successfull when it came out, both critically and commercially. It featured excellent performances by, then, real life couple, Romy Schneider and Alain Delon, considered, at the time, two of the world’s most beautiful people, and an 18 year old, Jane BIrkin. Birkin was awkward in the film, but had just sung her famous duet with Serge Gainsbourg, “Je t’aime moi non plus.”  Both the film, and song, were an international sensation. They both had the pulse of the zeitgeist of the moment. I won’t spoil the film for those who might want to see it, by revealing more. A must see for any Francophile.

The next film, is, of course, the 2003 Francois Ozon, movie, “The Swimming Pool.” Starring Charlotte Rampling as a highly successful, prematurely dowdy, repressed, English mystery writer, and Ludivine Sagnier, as maybe, or maybe not, her publisher’s daughter. It is a thriller with as much a debt to  Hitchcock, as Delray’s, “La Piscine.” The film immediately touched off a firestorm of controversy, because of the ambiguity of fantasy vs. reality, throughout, and its unclear ending, that can be interpreted several ways. At any rate , the swimming pool, at Rampling’s English publisher’s French country house, that he has lent her, to get over writer’s block, pries open her fantasies and repressed libido. The key to her lock, is a young woman who claims to be the publisher’s daughter, who shows up unexpectedly. What ensues is a tense and sexy combination of manipulation, seduction, voyeurism, and ultimately, violence.

Sarah, Charlotte Rampling, initialy finds the arrival of Julie, Ludivine Sagnier, to be an unwanted, and annoying distraction from her solitary rhythm of relaxation and work. However, it doesn’t take long before Julie’s topless sunbahing and provocative manner elicit what almost seems like lust in Sarah, or at least, a longing for Julie’s easy and open sensuality. Soon Sarah is watching Julie, in full voeuristic mode, including spying on a series of one-night stands with locals. Sarah uses Julie, both to get in touch with her own repressed sexuality, and as a source for her new novel. Julie  manipulates Sarah to perpetuate her own fantasies and come to terms with her own repressed past. By the time they’re both after the same man, everything breaks wide open. The highly charged dance between the two then changes dramatically, as they become unlikely allies. The swimming pool in this film is both the source of life, and death. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions and shifting motivations. At the very end, we find that Julie may not be who we think she is, but may be, just a figment of Sarah’s imagination. The water in this “Swimming Pool,” is both a mirror inside, but also a portal, out of which, charges the liberated id and super ego. No lifeguards on duty, here.

Where the “Swimming Pool” is a journey from reality to fantasy, the 1968, Frank Perry film, from a John Cheever short story, staring Burt Lancaster, is its mirror opposite, a journey from fantasy back to reality. Burt Lancaster, plays, Neddy Merrill, a middle-aged advertising executive. He wears only a bathing suit throughout the entire film. The film opens with him running through the woods, then arriving at the pool of some friends. He dives in, swims a few laps, then is greeted with a cocktail as he emerges.The friends chat amicably and he announces that so many pools have sprouted in their wealthy suburban area, that he is literally going to swim his way home from pool to pool.

What transpires is an incredibly visual rendering of the metaphoric unwinding of the glittering surface of the materialistic American dream and it’s hearty, self confident heroes. Lancaster’s initial exuberance and the friendliness with which he’s met, belie a man who seems at first on a noble quest, but is gradually revealed to be traveling deeper and deeper, from pool to pool, into his own, hellish, heart of darkness. At first, stalwart and romantic, Neddy exclaims that the pools form a river, and he’ll call it the Lucinda River, after his wife. What is beautifully, and at first subtly revealed, is that, in fact, he seems to have been away for a while and things are not quite what they first seemed. He has an ugly encounter with a former mistress, and then a former babysitter, a fight over one of his children’s toys that he finds, mysteriously, at a strangers house, and then, finally, growing hints that he’s actually in debt, that his children have had problems with the law, and finally that he and his wife are no longer together. He is harrassed  and shamed at a public pool. Neddy fights hard to retain is glowing optimism and faith in his noble quest. However, when at  sundown, he finally arrives home, he quizically confronts a rusted gate, an overgrown and neglected property, and an empty, abandonned house. He breaks down, sobbing. He can no longer hide the sad truth from himself. His inner collapse seems both appropriate to his personal reality, which has hit him like a ton of bricks, and emblematic of the deepest existential trauma.

I find ‘The Swimmer” to be a profoundly compelling, poetic film. It is filled with a beautiful, lyric, visual symbolism. Lancaster’s performance is haunting, full of life, subtly, and wonder. There is something profoundly life affirming and moving in Lancaster’s vision of himself and his world and the tenacity with which he holds on to his fantasies of his best self. This film is a must see, an unexpected and unique treasure.

Although I, myself, am a Pisces, a creature totally at home in the water, even I, might start wondering if I don’t hear those infamous four notes, and sense a triangular dorsal, lurking beneath the surface, of my own, swimming pool.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Facebook
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Blogplay
  • Add to favorites
  • email
  • RSS
  • Twitter

22 Comments on "The Swimming Pool; 3 Films of Illusions & Delusions"

  1. Pam Felcher says:

    I have read that one can also look at THE SWIMMER as a modern version of DANTE’S INFERNO, the levels of hell reached and society revealed at each new pool. There’s also a short story I remember called, “Public Pool” by Alice Adams, beautifully rendered and evocative, but not as deep as these films you mention. I must say, I love your blog because your fascinations echo mine, for sure!

    • David Leeds says:

      Pam, I don’t know that Alice Adams story, but I absolutely agree that THE SWIMMER could be seen as a version of THE INFERNO. The two fit perfectly hand in glove. I”ll see if I can track down any reference to Dante from the screen writer, Eleanor Perry. (The director’s wife.) Thanks for the simpatico vibes.

  2. edward jamieson says:

    yea love ‘the swimmer’. burt was still very fit after his days as a trapeze artist. saw ‘the swimming pool’ too. ludivine gets her kit off. even charlotte does too at the age of 58. havent seen the delon one, but i remember him from the original’ talented mr. ripley’. it had a nice twist at the end.

    • David Leeds says:

      You must see La Piscine! This is quintessential Delon. It’s interesting to contrast 1960′s American suburbia with French culture and image of themselves in exactly the same time period. We come off as so much more serious and plodding.

  3. kathy says:

    Swimming pools have always held such a fascination for most people. Growing up in a middle class neighborhood when I was young, the few homes that had a swimming pool became the place where everyone wanted to gather, even if they didn’t actually swim. It was such a sign of pure indulgence and luxury, in a cool and hip sort of way. I’d never really thought much about swimming pools as metaphors until I read this post. Really fascinating. Makes me want to watch all 3 films, back to back.

    • David Leeds says:

      Growing up in New England, swimming pools, at least in Providence, R. I. were almost non-existent. Country clubs and some schools had pools, otherwise it was all about the beach and the ocean. When I first came to L.A. for grad school, I was astonished, and intoxicated, by the vast ocean of pools here. I loved it, especially being a former competitive swimmer. The pool is so deeply ingrained in the world wide concept of Los Angeles as a magical place. David Hockney has, obviously, captured that in an iconic fashion. The swimming pool, here, is deeply a part of all of our, collective psyches.

  4. Nina Haritos says:

    I agree with it all…swimming pools have always held a fascination for most of us of a certain age, especially before they became another American necessity. I remember clearly when my mother’s architect said he would “put the pool here” and my mother saying “absolutely not!”. She didn’t want to be responsible for kids running down the hill into her pool. Of course, I haven’t really forgiven her…
    A little trivia…because I am somewhat of an Alain Delon groupie (I know, I know), by the time La Piscine was made, he and Romy had split. He had seriously broken her heart, yet when you watch the film, the electricity and chemistry they had was unmistakable. They remained close, life-long friends and he still loves and speaks of her to this day.
    And while I love pools, I’m a bit afraid of them, too…I always said, rather dramatically, that I must have drowned in a former life for my inexplicable fear of water, but the truth is, I had a scary accident while taking swimming lessons at the Y–I was five!
    Great post, David, really enjoyed reading it…putting The Swimmer on my list.

    • David Leeds says:

      Nina, you of all the people I know, were the first one I thought of when we just saw La Piscine. I can so picture you there, in every way in that time, place, and mileau. I didn’t know they were broken up then. My thin layer of research indicated otherwise, but i probably didn’t read it closely enough. It’s hard to think of any other movie with a male and female star with as much chemistry. It’s off the charts. And as to your pool thing, I didn’t know. I have always been such a water person, my whole life, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else not having the same attraction to the liquid world. I ache for your aqueous trauma.

    • angela saponaro says:

      You are an ass… you don’t kow the truth! go back to Paris…you much meet someone before you turn 70. Piss off

  5. Nina Haritos says:

    David, I love the way you write and I know know…I’m still so stuck in the 60′s!

  6. Nina Haritos says:

    David, I love the way you write and I know…I’m still so stuck in the 60′s!

  7. Orlando Sacasa says:

    This posting was an absolute treat. Over the years, I had seen all three movies, which I remember liking for varying reasons. The way you linked them, however, was superb. Since I have always been a big fan of French films, ‘La Piscine’ was a classic I did not miss – particularly since it had Romy Schneider… I had a crush on her since her three ‘Sissi’ movies in the mid-50s, as the young Empress Elisabeth of Austria. ‘The Swimmer’, which came out around the same time as ‘La Piscine’, became a favorite. I must see it again, since it has been a long time since I last saw it. I saw ‘The Swimming Pool’, the most recent film, when it first came out. Through IFC I have seen it several times since. Keep it up, David!

    • David Leeds says:

      Thanks, Orlando. I know what you mean about Ms. Schneider. I remember that time, as well. I think we all could use a little time travel, back to Saint-Tropez, ca. 1968, in a villa of our own. Let’s go.

  8. metscan says:

    I have only seen the newest ” Swimming pool “, and I liked it. I don´t actually know why, but it grabbed me well.
    I don´t watch movies twice, nor do I read one book twice. No explanation for this.
    I guess I´m picky, as I don´t wish to see older movies.
    And I don´t know why I am writing this all down.
    However, I enjoyed your review very much. Thank you!

    • David Leeds says:

      Mette, I wish you would allow yourself the pleasure of revisiting movies and books that you’ve enjoyed. I have very often liked favorite book and movies, even more, the second or sometimes third time around. As to old movies, they are often much better than the bulk of what is put out now! I think you would really enjoy the Burt Lancaster one, The Swimmer. The middle one I talked about, the one you saw, was, while enjoyable, not nearly as good as the other two. Thanks for taking the time to check this post out, and best regards back to you.

  9. Eliana Delbuck says:

    David after I read this I went right to Netflix and rent Le Piscine which I saw last week and loved it…I’m now waiting anxiously for the Swimmer. I’ve seen the Pool when it came out. It seems that water has “special effects”

  10. PONS Idiomas says:

    Hola, quizás os interese saber que tenemos una colección que incluye el relato ‘The Swimmer’ de John Cheever en versión original conjuntamente con el relato ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ de F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    El formato de esta colección es innovador porque permite leer directamente la obra en inglés sin necesidad de usar el diccionario al integrarse un glosario en cada página.

    Tenéis más info de este relato y de la colección Read&Listen en

Submit Your Comment!

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard