There are many characters in Gilles Lellouche’s French dramedy Sink or Swim. There are seven protagonists—all middle-aged men—submerged in their own, separate wallows of dissatisfaction, joined together by their singular decision to form, train, and compete as an all-male synchronized swimming team. If three’s a crowd, then seven’s a nation, and so the murky fractures of discontentment, worry, and grievance (this film being about their contemporaneous midlife crises), take a while to unfold.
Not much explanation is given as to why each member of this makeshift heptad chose to join this swimming team, but what’s clear from the get-go is that they aren’t particularly successful. The French men’s synchronised swimming team is all guts, flab, and body hair, though this isn’t a body-politics flick—these adornments of mid-life deterioration, bathed in flattering, mellowed lighting, feel less a statement than an unavoidable full-disclosure clause. The interests of full-disclosure expand far from our protagonists’ bodily droops and creases into the exceedingly thorough depictions of their life-related flops and fall-backs, resulting in a series of character arcs that overstuff the first few laps of Sink or Swim.
I’ll show you what I mean. Off the top of my head, there’s the new guy—the most developed of the protagonists—froggy, goggle-eyed Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric), who’s stuck in a rut of depression and unemployment, garnering little sympathy from his frosty children and no-nonsense wife (Marina Foïs). Chasing down a cork-board advertisement at his local pool, he first meets Thierry (Philippe Katerine), a flabby pool manager (read: pool cleaner), who, sporting a Bill Bailey hairdo and a quirky awkwardness one shade away from affability, seems almost always alone. There’s also Simon (Jean-Hughes Anglade), a divorced, faded rock star with the disadvantage of never having been famous or successful, who now performs for apathetic bingo-playing-seniors. Salt is rubbed in that wound—Simon’s uncoolness is aggregated by his day job, where he mans a canteen at a high school—the same one, in fact, that educates his daughter, who greets his hapless attempts at parenting with bristling condescension.
By now you’re probably tired of reading these character descriptions, but we’re only halfway. I’ll make it short: there’s quick-to-heat Laurent (Guillarme Canet) who has a stuttering son and a terrifying mother, and Marcus (Benoît Poelvoorde) who misses his ex-wife and runs a dried-up pool shop. And then there’s easy-going Basile (Alban Ivanov), and his pal, our token black dude, Avanish (Balasingham Thamilchelvan), whose character is so undeveloped that it can’t possibly be an oversight—it’s uncertain whether he even speaks French. With the exception of these two, the need to flesh out every single facet of so many lives is why the first part of this movie (and this review) pretty much drowns in tiring, fragmented, and drawn-out exposition.
But the film gets slicker once we’re past the hour mark, and once we know everyone—including the non-swimming-team-members I haven’t listed, most notably team France’s two swimming coaches: Delphine (Virginie Efira), a recovering alcoholic, complete with a tragic sports-related backstory, and wheelchair-bound, hard-to-please Amanda (Leïla Bekhti). As we cross the movie’s halfway point, we start to care for the film’s hefty population, and a single line, look, and embrace between two of the film’s 20-odd person populace becomes effortlessly heartfelt. Sink or Swim executes a simple trade-off—Lellouche sacrifices a chunk of run-time for a wealth of emotional ammunition, which ends up becoming, actually, worth it—ingraining a series of hard-felt gems of meaning which, in the last act, flower beautifully, without crossing the line into the saccharine. As Team France gear up for the world championships, the amount riding on their final routine bears monstrous weight, resulting in a spellbinding final performance. Though this is an underdog story, and the results feel not entirely unexpected, the film sidesteps predictability in its delivery, culminating into one of the most beautiful and pleasurably optimistic scenes I have seen in a while.
And to be fair, we can’t fault story predictability to screenwriters Ahmed Hamidi, Julien Lambroschini, and Lellouche, as the narrative is borne of several sources. Sink or Swim has a British, Rob Brydon-led cousin, Oliver Parker’s Swimming with Men (2018), which is near identical in plot, and in turn, is based on a Swedish documentary, Men Who Swim (2010). But comparatively, if you’ve got time for only one adapted-from-real-life-story-of-men-in-mid-life-crises-forming-a-synchronised-swimming-team-to-compete-in-the-world-championships movie in your life, make it Sink or Swim. While Sink or Swim does drone on a bit about the various complex facets of its double-figured cast, Swimming with Men bypasses that problem by not fleshing out any of its characters, making it a disappointingly transparent experience. It really took watching Swimming with Men to make me appreciate Sink or Swim, which entertains with a wry, offbeat humour, a dopey cast, a comfortable narrative, and a suitably cheesy resolution.
And it does feel a tiny bit perfect to watch this film, though a bit top-heavy, find its stride, show off with significant depth and charm, and go on to beat Britain.
Sink or Swim will be showing as part of the 2019 Alliance Française French Film Festival, which runs across multiple Australian capital cities from 6 March to 10 April.
Check out the full line-up here.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing