Edinburgh Int’l Film Festival 2013: The Swimming Pool

At some outdoor pool in Havana (so catalogue notes inform us), Esteban (Raúl Capote) arrives to teach four disabled teenagers a swimming lesson: Dona (Mónica Molinet) has one leg, Dany (Marcos Costa) has Down’s syndrome, Rodrigo (Felipe García) has defective legs and Oscar (Carlos Javier Martinéz) is, apparently, mute. Thin on incident and thick on mood, Cuban director Carlos Machado Quintela’s debut feature is just the sort of work about which programmers and critics alike fall head over heels in love with because it says precisely nothing about the world in which we live.

It’s not difficult to see the appeal. To someone in the arts scene or on the festival circuit, for whom funding is everything and committing to anything resembling a political opinion can be dangerous, this kind of elegantly shot enigma appears as profound as it is beautiful, allowing one to wallow in its contemplative register. And on first sight, The Swimming Pool (La piscine) is full of arresting compositions. Even a scene in which one character begins to drown another is beautifully composed. Geometric compositions appear to counteract the human figures that move imperfectly through the rigid, fixed-camera frames. A swimming pool never looked so hostile.

The site that gives Machado Quintela’s film its title has a tradition of cinematic allegory, of course, from The Swimmer (1968) to Deep End (1970) to The Pool (2012). Like Deep End especially, The Swimming Pool takes place in and around a space of bodily limitations, of gender fluidity (Dona, the only female present, sports a boyish bob) and of potential traumas. For no apparent reason, for instance, Oscar is subjected throughout to bullying and worse. Esteban does little to prevent such a dynamic: in one scene, in which he converses with another, older swimming instructor, he too seems to be the subject of humiliation.

There’s an unpleasant air that hovers over this body of water. Because it has no explicit allegorical function, Abel Arcos’s script is a dispiriting experience, one in which irritation sets in quick – irritation that someone has written such material, and irritation that another person has opted to frame the whole thing so po-facedly. A particularly sour episode is that in which our mostly obnoxious ciphers sit around a table and munch burgers. Dany and Dona begin to compete to see who can down theirs the quickest, while the others grin excitedly. Machado Quintela shoots the escapade in tight close-ups and amps up Sergio Fernández Borrás’s sound to capture that unbearable squelch of food being chewed and swallowed.

Everything is a competition, in fact: later, Esteban reluctantly agrees to follow through on a promise to race Dona before the rest of the gang. Rivalry, it seems, is an inescapable part of life. It’s fair enough if this Buñuellian scenario wants to operate on some suggestive and symbolic level of understanding, but in making this real non-odyssey of a slog, Arcos and Machado Quintela have mistaken humourlessness for seriousness.

You can follow Michael Pattison on Twitter @m_pattison.

About The Author

Michael Pattison is a film critic from Gateshead.

2 Responses

  1. Catherine

    Sorry, but I think this review displays a complete mis-understanding of the film and a shocking arrogance on part of the reviewer. The film may say little about the world which the reviewer inhabitants, but it says a hell of a lot about the world in which it is set and for which it was made – Cuba 2013.

    So there is nothing political about a closed, claustrophobic yet superficially attractive place, with a disturbing and unpleasant feeling in the air, difficult to pin down? Where time seems to have ground to a halt, everyone feels themselves to be in someway missing a part of themselves while the sit, with little to do or motivation to do it, and wait uncertainly for time to pass and something to happen?

    And which, at the same time, manages to show a wistful humanism in the small, everyday interactions of the adolescents.

    I think this film says a hell of a lot about Cuba, more than any in-your-face critique spiced up with 1950s cars and sexy girls (see most other Cuban films made in the last 10 years) ever could.

    Think a bit before you jump to conclusions based on limited personal experience.

    Reply
  2. Michael Pattison

    Hi Catherine, thanks for reading the review and for taking the time to respond.

    A small point regarding your own about the film being made “in” and “for” Cuba 2013 – its production year is 2011, it premiered at the Havana Film Festival in December that year. A bigger point, though, is that no significant art work should be made for any specific audience in particular, no should/can we approach it as such. Besides, as I note at the beginning of my review, were it not for programme notes, I wouldn’t know the film was set or filmed in Havana. Is it attempting a universalism from its very concept, do you think, or are there issues of censorship at work, where naming its setting might draw unwanted attention? I don’t know. That the film has been promoted and exhibited abroad, though, tells me this hasn’t just been made “for” Cuban audiences.

    Regarding your second point, that the film has allegorical and political meaning when it portrays “a closed, claustrophobic yet superficially attractive place, with a disturbing and unpleasant feeling in the air, difficult to pin down”… I disagree firstly that the political troubles facing ordinary Cubans are difficult to pin down. Since they have material, objective foundations that can be understood economically and traced historically, I reject the idea that a political understanding of Cuba has to be as vague and superficial as saying the country is “closed, claustrophobic yet superficially attractive place, with disturbing and unpleasant feeling in the air”.

    I must also ask that if this were the case, then what does Quintela make of it, or do with it? If his point merely is that Cuba is closed and claustrophobic but superficially attractive to outsiders, then he’s made his point in quite a laboured way, in my opinion. (I would also say that if that is his point, it’s a very superficial one.) But what of the deeper intricacies of the allegory he has set up? At least three of his five protagonists are not only dislikeable, but young. They’re bullies. Is this a comment on Cuban youth, on ordinary Cuban people or on the nation’s political establishment? Either way, nothing seems to resonate, for me.

    I haven’t jumped to any conclusions. When I visited Havana in 2010, my limited personal experience saw enough of the city to know three years later that, troubled though the country’s economy and politics may be, simply saying that it’s “a closed, claustrophobic yet superficially attractive place, with a disturbing and unpleasant feeling in the air, difficult to pin down” wouldn’t in any political sense quite cut it, I’m afraid.

    Reply

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