Sunday 17 March 2019

French Film Festival (5) - Barrie Pattison reviews SINK OR SWIM (Gilles Lellouche)

Le grand bain/Sink or Swim is directed & co-written by actor by Gilles Lellouche. I've been looking for this one since I saw Lellouche spruik it on French TV's Vingt Heures which SBS broadcasts in its early World Watch programs. This program has regular movie segments which S.B.S. never translates and runs in the news programs they buy it for. See what I mean about the French. 

It's a film about a misfit team who go in for men's synchronized swimming which has been compared to The Full Monty (which Lellouche points out he's never seen all the way through). He's not an Esther Williams fan either. Really Le Grand bain is closer to Jon Turtelaub's 1993 Cool Runnings,the Jamaican bobsled team movie. It arrives the same time as Oliver Parker's British Swimming With Men both apparently derived from the Swedish entry in the event championships.

Hangdog Mathieu Amalric is in a depression. He hasn't worked for two years and the only job prospect is in his awful brother-in-law's awful furniture warehouse. On impulse he tears off the phone number for a men's synchronised swimming training at the local pool. This ("Women play soccer now") ingeniously eliminates most of the set up and lands us smack into the middle of the stories of his equally dysfunctional team members being lackadaisically coached by Virginie Efira between her AA meetings.

Guillaume Canet's marriage is tottering under mummy issues. Benoît Poelvoorde is found sitting in one of the up-ended pools he can't sell. Jean-Hugues Anglade is raising his school age daughter out of a camper van the cops keep on moving out of supermart parking lots. She has to sit him down and tell him his hopes of rock stardom have long since evaporated. Pool man Philippe Katerine is a podgy loser and their token black member Balasingham Thamilchelvan gets curiously short time.

This is not a film offering the sunny chic of Paris. The setting is closer to the ugly backblocks that Benoît Delépin and Gustave Kerven show us in Le Grand Soir, Mamuth and the rest. Lellouche seems to have called on every French movie star who wasn't working that week. Marina Foïs registers particularly nicely even before her super market gossip sequence which must have attracted her to the part.

So far Le grand bain held my attention before I realised how much I was enjoying it. It sneaks up on you. 

We've seen the boys do their shonky routine at a local event, then one of them points out that all they have to do is register to become Team France at the newly established world championships. Then Efira drops out and they fall into the hands of Arab martinet, wheel chair bound Leïla Bekhti (Une prophete), who slaps them and abuses ("forty three seconds - I have little girls who can do forty three seconds") them into exhausting training routines. They have to carry her on their runs. A cheer goes up when Cantet snaps and hurls her, wheel chair and all, into the pool - political correctness takes one for the team. It is a surprise measure of the film's skill that everyone becomes more sympathetic after this.

The always admirable Poelvoorde asserts his presence without needing star treatment (he stands behind the others partly obscured for the poster) He hits on a plan B to equip themselves from a hypermarket with a shoplifting raid - cut to the guys humbled in the manager's office and Almaric crashing the getaway car not knowing they've had to empty Katerine's bank account to get out.

The parallel development of the personal stories, a great routine cross cut to "Physical" as they each work out in their office settings, the camper van trip to Norway, the daunting spectacle of the other national teams, the dawn celebration and the reaction of their tormentors are made to pile on top of one another to provide an irresistible buzz.

It's a great night at the movies even if it doesn't really come together. The film deliberately withholds our views of the guys in action till the end which seems a bit of an ask after the "We were a crap warmup act and now you want to put us into the world championships" set up.

The actors trained with Olympic swimming coaches and can be spotted participating in the final routine. It would be interesting to know how much of that was doubled. 

In his first full feature, Lellouche has pulled off a coup. The film is coining it in its home market and deserves to do the same thing here. Pierre (The Trouble with You Salvadori should take notes.

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