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.

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