Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 03, 2019 5:52 am 
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Desperate pleasures

Gilles Lelouche's movie Sink or Swim is a bold, crazy, satisfying tale and one of France's most popular movies of the year. It's about the empowerment and recognition of a small group of desperate men, à la Full Monty. They meet at their municipal swimming pool every week to train in a sport normally relegated to woman: synchronized swimming, an absurd activity for men, most would think, but one that lets them feel useful in a common pursuit and forget their worries. Camaraderie absorbs desperation. And eventually leads to triumph - because, with their two wildly energetic and equally eccentric female trainers (both desperate in their own way), they conceive, and execute, the absurd fantasy of competing in the world men's synchronized swimming competition in Norway. This film, a charmer at home perhaps, has little future in international competition itself: Guy Lodge called it "a mostly innocuous but unmemorable exercise" in his Cannes review for Variety.

In this outlandish effort (movie and story) the filmmakers have elicited some of France's best known film actors, Matthieu Amalric (as Bertrand, who starts things off, at the pool to escape his two years of unemployment and depression and finding the notice of the team on the bulletin board), Guillaume Canet, Benoît Poelvoorde, Jean-Hugues Anglade, and Philippe Katerine, plus a couple of oddball unknowns to round out the group, and as their coaches the estimable Virginie Efira (of Justine Triet's In Bed with Victoria) and Leila Bekhti. These men are not handsome, for the most part they are not young, they're not in particularly good shape. They have all sorts of problems. But that doesn't stop them. One of the characters speaks only Sinhalese. Everyone understands. It's that kind of movie.

This film succeeds, and is interesting, because of the constant unpredictable ways the tale of male empowerment is interrupted by the unpredictable and outlandish but also familiar and universal personal stories of Bertrand, Marcus, Simon, Laurent, Thierry, and the others. How well this plays outside francophone territories is uncertain. French comedy does not tend to translate ideally, and this is quintessentially almost a patriotic local crowd-pleaser. But there is, obviously, a strong visual element, most obviously in the glorious competition finale with its thrilling music and dazzling colors and lights. Lelouche shamelessly seeks to surprise us: nothing is allowed us to anticipate how brilliantly the little team will be able to perform in Norway, and that includes the team members themselves, who are desperately frightened and overwhelmed as they head toward the competition pool.

This film is overstuffed, but its slightly over two-hour run time makes sense with so such disparate characters to develop in some depth. We explore Simon (Jean-Hugues Anglade), who works in the kitchen of his daughter's school, lives in a van, and has made over two dozen self-produced albums nobody listens to; Marcus (Benoît Poelvoorde)a man concealing mostly only from himself that his business is going under; Laurent (Guillaume Canet)m who has spectacular marital problems. Americans are unlikely to know Philippe Katerine (or that he played Boris Vian in Gainsburg: A Heroic Life), but as Thierry, he is a memorable eccentric who looks like Claes Oldenburg and acts like an energetic clown, more competent than he seems. Delphine (Efira), who shouts at the team (but not as brutally as Leïla Bekhti's wheelchair bound Amanda when Delphine's out of commission for a while in rehab) chain smokes and reads poetry as part of her instruction: she is a recovering drunk, two years sober, having lost control when her ace swimming career was derailed.

You never know when a scene from one of these lives will intrude on the picture. It's that unpredictability that (at least intermittently) undercuts the feel-good obviousness of the self-realization tale. And from everything, Lellouche and his editor Simon Jacquet know how to take a complete break once in a while, most satisfyingly when, after the successful competition, the team stops in their van to stand in quiet awe and admiration before a glorious Nordic sunset.

Sink or Swim/Le grand bain, 122 mins., debuted at Cannes 13 May 2018 out of competition. It opened 23 Oct. 2018 in France, receiving a 4.1 press rating and 3.9 public score on AlloCiné. It received ten César Award nominations, including Best Film, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography.equaled only by Xavier Legrand's Custody (R-V 2018), the eventual Best Picture winner.Screened for this review as part of the 2019 UniFrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Rendez-Vous showtimes:
Saturday, March 2, 8:45pm
Monday, March 4, 9:00pm

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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