Swimming With Men v Le Grand Bain: cinema’s battle for the pool

This year, cinemagoers will have the opportunity to answer one of the most pressing questions of our time: who looks better in swimming trunks, Rob Brydon or Mathieu Amalric? First, you can have a gander at a nearly naked Brydon in Swimming With Men, in which his character overcomes a midlife crisis by joining an all-male synchronised swimming team. Then, if you pop to France in October, you can check out the Amalric physique in Le Grand Bain (AKA Sink or Swim), in which his character overcomes a midlife crisis by, er, joining an all-male synchronised swimming team.

Yes, just as we have had two simultaneous disaster movies about volcanoes (Volcano and Dante’s Peak) and two simultaneous sci-fi blockbusters about asteroids (Armageddon and Deep Impact), we now have two comedy dramas about depressed married men discovering the therapeutic pleasures of water ballet. “We were in prep, getting close to shooting, when we heard about the French one,” says Oliver Parker (Dad’s Army, St Trinian’s), the director of Swimming With Men. “It was a little bit of a worry, but we did quite like the idea that synchronised-swimming films could be synchronised!”

The two productions were not the result of a freakish coincidence. They were inspired by the Stockholm Art Swim Gents (abbreviated to SKSH in Swedish), a crowd of fortysomething Swedes who accessed their inner Esther Williams “as a protest against the meaninglessness of life”. Their experiences were fictionalised in a 2008 Swedish comedy, Allt Flyter (The Swimsuit Issue), but the SKSH’s fame was boosted by an acclaimed documentary, Men Who Swim, which came out in 2010. The documentary’s director, Dylan Williams, is now the executive producer of Swimming With Men. It is clear, too, that Le Grand Bain – directed by Gilles Lellouche – has the same source material.

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Mathieu Amalric (second left) with the cast of Le Grand Bain

Philosophising and farce … Mathieu Amalric
(second left) with the cast of Le Grand Bain. Photograph: Studio Canal

At times, the films are almost identical. Both have scenes in which the dispirited hero goes to a municipal pool and spots a ragtag group of unlikely mermen (played in Swimming With Men by Rupert Graves, Jim Carter, Adeel Akhtar, Daniel Mays and Thomas Turgoose); both have training montages and attractive female coaches and arguments about which song should accompany the swimmers’ routines; both have climactic sequences in which the gang heads abroad to compete in the world championships.

But, whether you prefer Brydon’s dad bod or Amalric’s, the British film is superior to the French one in all sorts of ways. Unlike Le Grand Bain, Swimming With Men exploits the metaphors that bubble up from the subject matter: the conceit, for instance, that Brydon’s character is not waving but drowning and that he needs some friends to push him back up to the surface. Swimming With Men also shows some interest in the athleticism and artistry of the sport, which no one involved in Le Grand Bain seems too bothered about. Lellouche makes some fatal mistakes, too. In his film, the world championship competitors from other countries are gym-sculpted Adonises, so it is hard to believe that the paunchy Frenchmen would stand a chance against them. In Parker’s film, the foreign teams are not much more buff than the Brits, so there is a possibility that our heroes could take home a medal.

Men Who Swim

‘It plays very nicely to certain British characteristics’… the original Swedish documentary, Men Who Swim. Photograph: PBS

Still, if there is a key reason why Swimming With Men scores higher marks than its rival from across the Channel, it is as follows: the French are not repressed enough for this type of comedy. Britons, by and large, are so uptight that the very notion of stripping off and talking about feelings is the stuff of liberating cinematic fantasy, hence the phenomenal success of Calendar Girls and The Full Monty. (The distributors of Swimming With Men call it “The Full Monty in Speedos”.) The French, meanwhile, live in a country where the typical response to nude sunbathing is nothing more than: “Bof.” As for those sauna-loving Swedes – it is no wonder that they got into male synchronised swimming before anyone else did. For them, a pair of trunks counts as formal dress.

“The original documentary is so charming that I did worry that we were going to take the heart out of it by moving it from Sweden to Britain,” says Parker. “But actually it plays very nicely to certain British characteristics, given that a central theme of the script [by Aschlin Ditta] is the difficulty middle-age men have in connecting with other middle-aged men. The Swedish are already pretty evolved, emotionally speaking. We’re low down on the evolutionary scale when it comes to opening up about our fears and disappointments, so if the swimmers are British it creates a completely different type of tension.”

If the swimmers are French, on the other hand, that tension is not there. To keep itself afloat, Le Grand Bain has to doggy-paddle between surrealism, philosophising and farce, whereas Swimming With Men can get on with telling its story, paying tribute to male bonding and underdog bravado as it goes. “I’m a huge fan of French cinema,” says Parker. “But their delight in slapstick suggested to me that they were always going to pull in a different direction from ours. We knew that, if we played it absolutely straight and kept it focused on the characters, the comedy would come out of that.”

Mind you, Parker maintains that his film is not just “a little soufflé”, but a heartfelt exploration of the things middle-aged men worry about: their ever-decreasing social circles, their decelerating careers, their “loss of potential and youth”.

All that may be true. What counts, though, is that the makers of Swimming With Men understand something no French director could: when you have Carter with no clothes on in your film, you don’t need much else. “Well, yes,” says Parker. “They didn’t get around to that on Downton Abbey.”


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