“When I was writing the script, I felt like France was going through a very specific period – a period of diffuse, vague sadness, melancholy. We were really at a loss, turning in circles and we didn’t know what to do,” says Gilles Lellouche about his smash hit French comedy Sink or Swim.
“At the same time, television was constantly telling us that it’s all about success, it’s all about money, it’s all about physical beauty.
“What happens for someone when you’re reaching 45 or 50, and you look around and you see yourself and you say, ‘Well, I’m not very handsome, I’m not very rich, I’m not very successful’?
“This is a very difficult situation to find yourself in. Especially if you’re finishing the first half of your life looking to embark on the second half, which in itself isn’t all that rosy. The most exciting parts of life are behind you, you know what’s waiting for you, you’ve lost people close to you… It’s really difficult. You want to change, you want to find new meaning for yourself. But that’s very difficult, and where do you find that?”
Best known as an actor in films such as C’est La Vie and Safe Hands (like Sink or Swim, premiering at the 2019 Alliance Francais French Film Festival, at which Lellouche is a guest), a friend showed the middle-aged filmmaker a Swedish documentary called Men Who Swim.
“I was thinking about guys that make their lives great again; I was looking for something special for that. Hugo [Selignac], my producer, talked about this documentary. I saw it of course, I said okay, that’s it. Then I learned when I was writing this project that those guys from the documentary were trying to make a movie with that, in England [Swimming with Men, which is coincidentally in cinemas March 21 – at the same time as the French Film Festival travels the country]. And before that, there was a French guy, who had seen the documentary and was trying to make a movie too. I was like, ‘Oh fuck, how can I make it?’ The French guy’s project died, so I started to write again.
“I like that the idea that this sport, this team, this collective, but I didn’t want to use a typical sport like rugby or football,” he continues. “When I found synchronised swimming, first of all, it’s very poetic, it’s very unusual. It also offers me two aspects that are very positive. First of all, it takes places in a swimming pool and secondly in swim suits. It’s not like in a ski slope where you see them in fancy outfits. Here, they really are stripped down, they’re naked. You can see how they look at middle age. They literally get naked in the changing rooms, they spend time together in the changing rooms to get to know each other.
“Also, the movements themselves are very collective, this isn’t a sport for individuals. As you see in the film, this is all about collective movements. It’s not one star, you’re working together to create these shapes. The other aspect I really like very much in synchronised swimming is the music. You’re working to music, the music accompanies you and it gives you the sense of a musical comedy. In cinema we have musical comedies, we know this isn’t about real life, we’re going at a higher level, a metaphorical level.”
Next, Lellouche needed to create the characters, and he didn’t need to look too far for that.
“To be very honest, in all the characters I invested a lot of myself, I drew on myself and my personal life,” he admits. “I drew on people I knew around me, things I had seen myself. In fact, the character that Guillaume Canet plays, who is so cruel to his son, cruel to his wife… Why is this? Slowly in the film, we realise there’s something that he’s been through. You see that he doesn’t like to talk about his mother. We meet his mother – she seems to be slightly schizophrenic, she can go from being extremely nice, to being absolutely monstrous in the space of a heartbeat – this is something that I experienced myself as a young boy. Someone in my family was like this, she could be extremely sweet one second, and then absolutely cruel the next. For me, as a boy, this was absolutely terrifying. It was traumatising, so I draw on this.
“In the case of this rocker [Jean-Hugues Anglade], who is past his prime, and who is never going to be the rock star he wanted to be, this too, in different area of artistic endeavour is something that I experienced. When I was 20, I was taking acting classes, I was friends with a number of young actors who today at 40 or 45 just haven’t made it. They bet their entire savings on black at the roulette table, and instead it was red that came up. And they don’t have gigs on TV, on the stage, or on movies. What do you do as a person at 45, when all your dreams are shattered? What do you tell your family, what do you tell your daughter who looks up to you? You say, well I’m not the hero you thought I would be.”
These concerns with masculinity that are in the foreground of the film’s comedic and dramatic moments, come at a time when our culture is actively empowering women. Does Gilles Lellouche think this is the right time for his film?
“Yes, absolutely, I think this is the perfect time, this is the perfect response to what is going on now,” he replies. “We see around us the women’s movement, the rights that they’re enunciating, which are absolutely justified, and this is a perfect response to it. I sometimes make fun of the women’s movement, but I make fun of everything, and I’m absolutely against political correctness.
“It’s important to show these men, who are real men, in real life, who aren’t heroes. Middle aged men who get undressed, and who don’t have perfect bodies,” he concludes. “I’m so upset by the dictatorship of aesthetic perfection that you see in the mass media, where if you don’t have a six pack, a perfect hairless body, then you absolutely don’t count. It leads to inhibitions, it’s crippling for men, individually. I like the fact that these men embrace who they are, they are far from perfect, they are not heroes. But you can be a hero, at the same time as you’re in so many other respects an anti-hero.”