In one of the most indelible images of The Graduate (1967), home-from-college Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) drifts aimlessly across the sparkling water of his parents’ pool, sunglasses glued to his face. Against the glimmering blue, the shot perfectly encapsulates the mood of ennui and the trappings of suburban luxury that threaten to engulf him.
Benjamin’s own life seems to be drifting. Facing a walled-in, unappealing future – as sterile as the chlorine in the water – his affair with his alluring neighbour, Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), is his own method of social disruption. But genuine escape is elusive. For Benjamin, life – much like his folks’ pool – may be boring, but it sure is comfortable.
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Swimming pools serve as a repository of symbolic meaning in the movie world. A glamorous but attainable status symbol, their popularity at home soared in the second half of the 20th century. So too did their appearance on cinema screens. A year after The Graduate forever connected the swimming pool to the malaise of the well-off, Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, a deeply eccentric adaptation of John Cheever’s short story, was released. In it, a spry Burt Lancaster (always brilliant at corn-fed American masculinity gone slightly to seed) challenges himself to swim across a series of his neighbours’ backyard pools. He thinks they form their own sort of ‘river’ on his way to his house.
The series of backyard pool parties and ex-lovers Lancaster encounters on his way home speak of a suburban discontent and personal decay. The pool signifies a return to clarity, renewal and all the picturesque bourgeois ideals that Lancaster’s character seems to have lost in his own life. So his obsession with continually diving into the pool is really about returning to his own former sexual and social prowess.
The bored sensuality of The Swimmer recalls The Graduate and encapsulates the hedonism that has since been closely related to swimming pools in the cinema. Warm weather, California glamour and beautiful people in a state of undress all have their obvious parts to play.
The aptly-named French thriller La Piscine came out in 1969, making for a third successive cinema release that’s fascinated by the swimming pool. Set on the sun-dappled French Riviera, it features a foursome of fantastically attractive actors – Romy Schneider, Alain Delon, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin – growing increasingly fraught by sexual jealousy as they spend a languid poolside holiday together. Luca Guadagnino’s 2015 reworking of the film was titled A Bigger Splash, with a nod to David Hockney’s famous poolside painting of the same name. Guadagnino’s version also amps up the sexual decadence, seeing Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton fight a slow, dangerous battle of seduction.
Love scenes in pools are relatively common, but few are more memorable than the tryst between Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) and powerful playboy Zack (Kyle MacLachlan) in Showgirls (1995). The consummation – and turning point – of their attraction for one another happens in a luxe Las Vegas swimming pool, where Nomi energetically thrashes around.
The glamour of that Hockney-esque setting – the unsettled, fluid movement of water, its penetrating blue, the way it refracts and glitters in the sun – all make it an appealing subject for the camera. But as the denouement of La Piscine reveals, vacuous eroticism is not the only facet of the cinema swimming pool. Mystery and danger are also associated with water, linking back to the sea as an elemental source of drowning, shipwreck and ruin. Take the sinister infinity pool of The Limey (1999) or the one in Sexy Beast (2000), where the poolside protagonists are far from relaxed. Violence breaks out easily in hot weather, and even more easily when there’s an inground pool to toss someone into.
As a traditional and elemental force, water itself is often associated with the archaically feminine. Traits once thought of as womanly – changeability, intuition and a tendency toward emotion – tend to find their symbolic link with water play out on screen.
An iconic film about womanhood, desire and male fear, Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 horror story Cat People has one of its crucial moments in a public swimming pool. When a woman goes for a midnight swim, she finds herself trapped by the cat-monster. A switch of the light reveals a human Simone Simon, whose husband has been flirting with the swimming woman. The meaning of the setting seems apparent: in the shimmery, diffuse light cast by the swimming pool, female power can transfer and overflow.
Relationships between women, often buoyed by sexual jealousy or attraction, seem to find their locus in the cool blue waters of cinema’s swimming pools. This is the case in Céline Sciamma’s coming-of-age drama Water Lilies (2007), where three teenage girls struggle with their hormones. They’re as attracted to boys as they are to each other. Their public swimming pool and the changing rooms therein prove to be a shivery, experimental inner sanctum where the girls, changing from their wet swimsuits, can confide in each other and revel in their bodies.
Similarly, Swimming Pool (2003) focuses on the attractions and rivalries between women. In François Ozon’s psychological thriller, a middle-aged writer (Charlotte Rampling) is holed up in a holiday cottage and forced to spend time with a beautiful, promiscuous twentysomething (Ludivine Sagnier) who shares the space with her. Again, the watering hole outside is a locus for lust and even murder. According to these movies, you just can’t trust two women near a swimming pool.
Thematic traits and genres may vary, but the on-screen swimming pool holds a great deal of representational power. From The Graduate straight through to A Bigger Splash, it rarely serves a simply decorative function. Under that visually pleasing, serene blue surface, there’s dejection, boredom, sex and roiling passion.