Swimming pool scenes aren’t every movie director’s wet dream

by Anne Billson

FILM POSTER FOR THE SWIMMING POOL, 2003

“The poor dope. He always wanted a pool,” says Joe Gillis. Sunset Boulevard (1950) begins with Joe, played by William Holden, floating face down in a swimming pool. But he doesn’t let a little thing like being a corpse stop him from narrating the film in flashback, to show how the struggling screenwriter has drowned in his own dreams, albeit with the help of a couple of bullets in the back.

Was there ever a status symbol as tricky and dangerous as the swimming pool? The rebels in the propaganda film Soy Cuba (1964) are fighting a losing battle, with the modern viewer if not with Batista’s dictatorship, which was ousted in 1958. Because it’s a sad fact that most of us would prefer to sip decadent cocktails around the pre-revolution rooftop pool, with its celebrated tour de force tracking shot through the water, rather than march with the long-suffering peasants at ground level. As if to bang home the irony, Paul Thomas Anderson recycles this sublime moment of Commie agitprop for a pornographer’s coke-fuelled pool party in Boogie Nights (1997). There’s an anecdote – probably apocryphal – about Nikita Khrushchev flying into Los Angeles in 1960, seeing all the swimming pools from his plane, and saying, “Now I know Communism has failed.”

Or take Blake Edwards, in whose comedies people falling fully-clothed into swimming pools is a recurring motif (The Party, The Return of the Pink Panther, Blind Date etc). It’s all fun and games, until you read that the director was a lifelong depressive plagued by back injuries sustained in a Beverly Hills swimming pool accident in the 1940s. Maybe he was trying to exorcise his pool trauma by repeatedly playing it for laughs. On a superficial level, swimming pools are about glamour, success and sex. If you play your cards right, promises Showgirls (1995), you too can copulate splashily in your Las Vegas pool, and never mind that what is popularly referred to as the “dolphin sex scene” would end, in real life, with Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan suffering from back problems as debilitating as poor Blake Edwards’.

Or how about Kelly and Susie (Denise Richards and Neve Campbell), two high school students in Wild Things (1998) who have been caught making false rape accusations against their school counsellor? Their splashy catfight in the pool slithers into topless kissing, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a just another cheesy erotic thriller; there is more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye, and I don’t mean under water.

In Jungian therapy, water represents the subconscious mind: you can see the surface, but heaven knows what might be fermenting in the depths – and you don’t have to be French to plumb the surrealist possibilities

Likewise with Deep End (1970), in which a horny fifteen-year-old takes a job at a London swimming pool and finally gets to make out with the girl of his dreams (played by Jane Asher, the girl of everyone’s dreams, especially when combined with cake) in the empty pool, with tragic results. Though how much of this is real and how much adolescent wet dream is left for viewers to decide.

There’s more did-it-really-happen-or-was-it-fantasy in Swimming Pool (2003), starring Charlotte Rampling as a prim English novelist whose working holiday at her publisher’s idyllic Provençal holiday villa is disrupted by the arrival of his free-spirited daughter (Ludivine Sagnier) who keeps lolling by the pool in various states of undress. Antagonism between the two women gives way to murderous complicity and a “surprise” ending that hints at stranger fish swimming around the writer’s psyche than you might expect. There are further French poolside shenanigans in La Piscine (1969), the first hour of which consists of little but Romy Schneider and Alain Delon (no longer a couple in real life, but still oozing chemistry), lounging by the pool in swimwear. Sometimes, I swear, this is really all you need from a film. It’s almost a shame when Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin roll up and the plot goes a bit Columbo.

In Jungian therapy, water represents the subconscious mind: you can see the surface, but heaven knows what might be fermenting in the depths, and you don’t have to be French to plumb the surrealist possibilities. Take The Swimmer (1968), one of the oddest American films of the 1960s. Burt Lancaster, showcasing his impressive 52-year-old physique in black swimming trunks, plays an executive called Ned Merrill, who decides to swim home to his posh Connecticut suburban home via his neighbours’ pools. With each pool evoking a part of his past, he stops to talk to the people there but, as fragments of the allegory fall into place, they become less friendly. Needless to say, nothing in Ned’s life is as sunny as it appears. It’s like The Twilight Zone by way of The New Yorker, where the John Cheever story from which this was adapted first appeared.

Swimming pools are at their least wholesome in horror movies, from the school pool in the proto-Hitchcockian Les Diaboliques (1955), which looks as though it would give you gastroenteritis if you went anywhere near it, to the one in Taste of Fear (1961) which is bigger than it looks, and contains a decaying corpse. Of course it does! Because there are always dead things, literal or metaphorical, lurking at the bottom of the cinema swimming pool: broken dreams, secret desires and your deepest, darkest fears.



Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Amanda Craig
    July 15, 2021 10:39 am

    Excellent piece. I often think about the scene in The Graduate in which Dustin Hoffman stays underwater, hiding from his parents…and also the end of The Great Gatsby.

    Reply

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