Sink or Swim (Le Grand Bain)
Gilles Lellouche’s ensemble comedy is well-made, irritating and French. A disparate group of sad, middle-aged men in the thrall of mid-life crises find the value of team sports. The twist: they find it in a girls’ sport. Male synchronised swimming squads don’t lend themselves to the most sophisticated sexual politics or laughs, so we get Mathieu Almaric et al in trunks instead. Sink or Swim is watchable, despite everything.
We begin with a voiceover from Almaric’s Bertrand, a timid, depressed man with a loving wife (an underused Marina Foïs), moody children and a beautiful home. It’s inexplicable. He quaintly philosophises about square pegs and round holes. These are some of the most annoying minutes of cinema. The humour throughout is an acquired taste but at least moves past the cutesy, condescending opening.
We’re rapidly introduced to a group with relative merits of failure: the antagonistic hothead (Guillaume Canet) with a stuttering son, put-upon wife and bipolar mother; the failed blowhard entrepreneur (Benoît Poelvoorde) with big debts; the untalented rocker (Jean-Hugues Anglade) with an exasperated daughter; the village idiot (Philippe Katerine) with the social skills of a small child. All are mined for comic potential through revealing cut-aways while being hammed up no end by their respective actors.
Despite their lack of skill and fitness, the characters aim to take part in the world championships, coached by two other familiar cinematic tropes: the alcoholic devotee (Virgine Efira) and the disabled drill sergeant (Leïla Bekhti). In short, all have problems and desire redemption. This gives the film a bittersweet edge that is somehow maintained for the duration. The feature is sharply put together, managing a tone that by most measures should screech.
As can be imagined, the treatment of mental health is outrageous. Illness – prevalent among the group – is equated with esteem issues, financial problems and bad luck. One character has their medication thrown away, only to still perform on the big day. The coach’s fluctuating fortunes with alcoholism are never reconciled. This is all fine, but the movie hangs its hat on tender moments and a schmaltzy ending. Of course, Sink or swim is a comedy, just not a thought-provoking one.
Sink or Swim (Le Grand Bain) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.