But the swimming pool? It's neither majestic nor mysterious: One medium-range shot from a camera lens and the viewer can absorb its entire length and everything in it. In the ocean, sharks and submarines and sea monsters can frighteningly be anywhere at any time, but the most terrifying thing in a swimming pool is usually the dead bee that's been bobbing on the surface for the last couple of days.
Still, that's not to say that cinema has never given this popular recreation spot its due. Just in time for summer, then, here's a look at several memorable moments involving swimming pools.
At the top of the list are two movies that depend on the pool for their very existence. The first is (duh) Swimming Pool, the intriguing art-house hit from last summer that left scores of filmgoers confused by its elliptical nature. The movie is part character study, centering on a middle-aged British author (Charlotte Rampling) who retreats to an isolated house in the south of France in order to get some writing done. The film is also a psychological study, as this author (of mystery novels, no less) finds her solace interrupted by a bratty French woman (Ludivine Sagnier) and engages in a battle of wills with the young upstart. The picture is also a thriller, as a murder takes place poolside and both women are affected by this tumultuous development. Most of all, the movie is a celluloid mind game, a melding of fact and fantasy that forces its viewers to draw their own conclusions.
As for the swimming pool of the title, it carries its own measure of symbolic weight; as writer-director Francois Ozon stated, "Each person can see in it whatever symbol he or she desires... In this film, I'm utilizing the swimming pool for its plasticine quality and also for its enclosed and confining aspect. Contrary to the ocean, a pool is something that you can manipulate... [It's] like a cinema screen on which you project things."
The other major pool pic is a real keeper, a woefully forgotten gem from the 1960s. The Swimmer, a 1968 adaptation of a John Cheever short story, casts Burt Lancaster as Ned Merrill, who as the picture commences is seen stopping by the house of some acquaintances and requesting a lap in their pool. He quickly realizes that this Connecticut suburb is strewn with pools that lead all the way to his house, so he makes the decision to "swim" all the way home. By all initial evidence, the cocky and cheerful Ned is a successful businessman, a loving husband and father, and perhaps even a pillar of his community. But with each successive dip in a pool - and with each encounter with the various neighbors, many of whom are decidedly not friendly - the truth about Ned Merrill emerges, and the movie ends on a scene of devastating power.
Working from a script by his wife Eleanor Perry, director Frank Perry crafted a penetrating piece of introspection that was clearly ahead of its time. The picture could easily be subtitled The Discreet Harm of the Bourgeoisie, taking a harsh look at the cruelty and conformity of the upper middle class while also remaining tantalizingly vague about some of the details surrounding the crash-and-burn of Ned's American Dream. A haunting and moody drama, this has stuck with me ever since catching up with it a year ago.
Unless you count disposable yarns like Swimfan and Swim Team (and let's not), the swimming pool hasn't exactly been the marquee attraction on many other films. Yet the number of movies that have managed to incorporate it in a scene or two are legion and, in a couple of instances, downright classic. When he's not busy taking up with Mrs. Robinson or her daughter, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) spends a good deal of time lounging by the family pool in 1967's The Graduate. And in one of the movie's best scenes (imaginatively shot from Benjamin's point of view), the lad, decked out in scuba gear, retreats to the bottom of the pool to get away from all the maddening members of the older generation. Equally memorable is the opening of 1950's Sunset Boulevard, where we spot a dead body floating on the surface of a swimming pool. It's not long before we discover that the corpse is that of protagonist Joe Gillis (William Holden), and that he'll be narrating the proceedings from beyond the grave!