Pool-side view: in cinema’s swimming pools we watch social barriers and artifice wash away

By Oriana Franceschi

“Val, can you turn on the lights please?” and flash the pool is illuminated. It shines like a sapphire, a bright jewel in the crown of the wealthy family for whom Val works as a maid in comic drama The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?, Brazil, 2015), directed by Anna Muylaert. She stands on the side with her employer Carlos, his son Fabinho, and her own daughter Jéssica. “It’s the most beautiful thing, isn’t it?” Val sighs to them.

Swimming pools are the epitome of wealth, leisure and new-money prestige, and feature in a number of films premiered in the Berlinale this year: from The Second Mother and The Blue Hour (Onthakan, Thailand, 2014), by Anucha Boonyawatana, to Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups (USA, 2015). They also act as an important space in Divine Location (Göttliche Lag, Germany, 2014), showing as part of LOLA at Berlinale, and in the film Unrelated (UK, 2007) by Joanna Hogg, whose work was featured in the panel Room For Emotions: Embodying Architecture In Film.

They gleam artificially under the painted interior skies of Las Vegas and at the centre of the hedonistic parties Rick attends in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. There, pools are a site of La Dolce Vita-style, feigned free-spiritedness by those who understand the potential of wet clothes to stick and cling to slim arms, flat stomachs, long legs. Rick never enters these pools unless alone. Within them, he knows, he won’t find ‘the pearl’ searched for by the knight in the story his father tells him, a piece of pure beauty crafted by the hand of the limitless ocean from a grain of sand; the same sand he walks on with his brother, his mother, to feel the waves on his shins. These are real connections, while artificial pools offer only the illusion of contact.

No pool is more artificial than those on the architectural plans for the luxury houses by the larger, equally manufactured pool that is Lake Phoenix in Divine Location, Ulrike Franke and Michael Loeken’s documentary about an expensive lake and residential area being built in a poor part of Dortmund. These pools are even, symmetrical surfaces drawn onto balconies and patios, enjoyed by two-dimensional models in bikinis with picture-perfect children. These crisp designs will one day tower over the humble paddling pools built in the gardens of the,existing occupants of the city: “A working man’s pleasure”, the neighbourhood police officer points to one and says. “And they want to build a palace in front of it”.

From the poolside, these symbols of affluence and privilege are a reminder of strict social divisions. In The Second Mother, Val tells her daughter, “Jéssica, don’t even look at that pool. It’s not for you.” Meaning, it’s not for them, the working, “servile” classes. Jéssica does look, though, watching the pool with thinly-veiled desire: and her look is reflected from its waters by Fabinho.

Once the swimming pools’ water subsumes characters, the social barriers they represent dissipate and drift into nothingness. Eventually, in flirtatious play, Fabinho and his friend throw Jéssica into the bright blue of the pool. As she hits the water, time slows down. She and the boys become a jumble of limbs, splashing water, laughter, bubbles and sunlight. Their parents can only watch, aghast, as the class divisions between them melt away like ice. Within the pool they see the future of Brazil: a country where the class system is fluid and unstructured. Unable to handle this truth, Fabinho’s mother has the pool drained, claiming she saw a rat in the water. “Do you think I’m a rat?” Jéssica asks Fabinho, knowingly.

In Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated, the pool is symbolic of another kind of social divide that can only be overcome under the cover of its water. It is an area occupied by the teenage children of the protagonist Anna’s friends, who are renting a holiday villa in Tuscany: the two groups call themselves ‘The Young’ and ‘The Old’, in an almost tribe-like manner. When she arrives, alone at night, Anna is intimidated by the sight and chaotic noise of The Young as they drink and talk by the pool, dark and faceless against its shimmering brightness. When she joins them inside it, later in the film, Anna makes the transition from The Old to The Young, and from family friend to a sexual possibility for her friend’s son, Oat. Having emerged from the pool, dripping wet and naked in the moonlight, she is no longer the shy, middle-class, middle-aged friend of their mother’s: she is a woman, and the boys fall silent.

During this scene, Hogg says, it was hard to tell whether the new-found exhibitionism that Anna displays belonged to the character or the actress playing her (Kathryn Worth). Talking in an interview at the Berlinale, where she also gave a talk on architectural space in cinema, Hogg said of the swimming pool scene that “because I create these very real situations, sometimes I don’t know what’s real and what isn’t, or what’s acting and what isn’t.”

Something transformative occurs in the space of the pool. Once social rules have ceased to control them and they exist in a totally singular communal space, one without clothes or any other indicators of social group, characters in the water are altered. When they enter the pool, we are often submerged also and, among the tangle of hair and liquid, fragments of sky and debris, we are baptised with them. When we emerge into the light, they are reborn as their true selves.

Watching characters either fall or find greatness in the space of a fictional pool is nothing new. Ned Merrill in The Swimmer (USA, 1968), directed by Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack, leaves a fragment of his God-like reputation floating in the pool of every wealthy Californian neighbour he visits on his mission to ‘swim home’ on the artificial lake formed by their pools.  Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby swims in his pool for the first time after revealing the truth of his origins to Nick, who tells him “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re better than the whole damn bunch put together.” In Luhrman’s adaptation (USA, 2013), after Gatsby is shot he floats in the water before the sun, aqua-marine eyes blankly focused on a distant point of paradise: he appears truly “Great” for the first time.

Sometimes, though, a character’s transformation is simply one of self-acceptance. In Anucha Boonyawatana’s The Blue Hour, gay teenagers Tam and Phum can free themselves of the hetero-normative societal pressure to please their parents in the water of an abandoned pool, where ‘you don’t have to care about anyone.’ Together they hold hands and sink into the water- beneath its murky still surface they look like twin butterflies in a dank cocoon. When Tam emerges he has completed the metamorphoses that began with his first gay sexual experience in the echoing changing rooms of the pool. Just as living vicariously through the promiscuous pool-dweller Julie sexually liberates the frigid writer in Ozon’s The Swimming Pool (France, UK), Tam has discovered within the pool and can embrace- at least within the private arena of his relationship with Phum- his sexuality.

Val, too, abandons the feelings of inferiority that have shaped her life in The Second Mother. Towards the end of the film, she goes into the swimming pool for the first time in over ten years of working for the wealthy family. She leaves her flip-flops on the side and rolls her trousers up to her knees, then descends into its ankle-depth. Splashing and laughing, she calls her daughter: “Guess where I am?” Elated, defiant, Val has accepted herself as a person of equal worth to the family she works for.

Within the still, chemically-purified waters of the swimming pool, characters can wash away the expectations of the society and the audience watching them. Unlike the seemingly limitless expanse of the ocean, the cinema pool is a safe, confined space. It forms a second screen in which we can see another side of the characters: they reveal aspects of themselves normally concealed under layers of clothing and social conformity.