Throughout the course of the 20th Century, swimming pools have been associated with a certain lifestyle. The Bright Young Things ‘Bath and Bottle Party’ of June 1928, held at St George’s Swimming Baths in London; Terry O’Neill’s 1977 photograph of Faye Dunaway with Oscar in hand by the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel; even the opening scene of Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000) in which Ray Winstone plays a retired gangster baking in the sun by the side of his pool – the venue and context may change, but one thing remains constant: swimming pools signify luxury, leisure, and above all, glamour. Symbolically though, there’s no better metaphor for repressed desires and clandestine activities. By their very nature pools suggest duality. There’s the world above, and the world below the waterline; a psychological connection between water and the workings of our subconscious.
In a world where dreams are manufactured, water is of paramount importance - Thomas AP van Leeuwen
A pool, especially a beautifully designed one – think of Gatsby’s ornate marble beauty or newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle – is a status symbol. In Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, the ageing silent movie star Norma Desmond’s pool plays a central role, and not simply because the film opens with the discovery of unsuccessful screenwriter Joe Gillis’s body floating face down in it. Like Desmond herself, it stands for the extravagance and excess of Old Hollywood in the “crazy ’20s” when she was at the height of her career. Nothing sums up Desmond’s descent into oblivion and neglect like the image of the empty, leaf-strewn pool; and then with her revitalisation, the pool is also brought back to life. “Poor dope,” says the narrator at the beginning of the film, “he always wanted a pool. Well, in the end he got himself a pool, only the price turned out to be a little high.”
Gillis was eager for fame and fortune – everything the pool represented –but he’s also no different from every middle class Tom, Dick and Harry who wants a pool in his own backyard, an increasingly attainable dream in the United States from the ’50s and ’60s onwards.
Making a splash
The swimming pool as a suburban status symbol is loaded with many of the same ideals as the grand pools of the wealthy: prosperity, of course, but also a sense of freedom and escape from the daily grind. In Chris Smith’s India-set film The Pool (2007), a young hotel worker becomes obsessed with the swimming pool in the garden of a middle-class villa. He is determined to use it under invitation only, an ambition completely at odds with his existence. His simple aspiration to swim in the pool symbolises his larger life goals such as education and economic advancement.
These, of course, are all objectives fundamental to the American Dream – and the suburban aspiration to own a backyard watering hole is particularly evident in California. Southern California, in particular, has long been synonymous with swimming pools, summed up perhaps in David Hockney’s pool-focused paintings from the ’60s and ’70s, the most famous of which is A Bigger Splash (1967), an image that features no figures, just the foamy aftermath of a dive into the otherwise tranquil water. There’s clearly something highly attractive about the domestication of water as a leisure time luxury in the very middle of what is otherwise an arid wilderness.
In The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool,Thomas AP van Leeuwen suggests a connection between water and dreams, arguing, “in a world where dreams are manufactured, water is of paramount importance. Thus in Hollywood, a place as dry as the nearby desert, the element appears as a dream living in concrete or plastic containers called private swimming pools.” It’s surely no coincidence then that in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), the friendly career advice a family friend offers Benjamin Braddock, home from college and spending his days “drifting” aimlessly around his parents’ backyard pool on an inflatable sun lounger, is “plastics”. “I just want to say one word to you. Just one word,” the man begins. “Are you listening? Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.” All the while behind them the surface of the pool in its own “plastic container” glistens and ripples in the darkness – a representation of Benjamin’s disaffection and listlessness. Writing in 1977, Joan Didion admits that “the symbolic content of swimming pools has always been interesting,” but, she continues, “a pool is misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and of a kind of hedonistic attention to the body.
Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable. A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.” In Frank Perry and Sydney Pollack’s Connecticut-set film The Swimmer (1968), based on John Cheever’s 1964 short story of the same name, Ned Merrill, a middle-aged man, decides to “swim home”, pool by pool across his neighbours’ estates. “He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county,” writes Cheever.
But what begins as an innocent feat of endurance to prove Merrill’s athleticism actually turns out to be an increasingly troubled swim down a river of forgetfulness. We learn – from the snippets of conversation he engages in with the friends he meets along the way – that Merrill’s had some kind of serious mental breakdown and the idyllic domestic set-up he’s swimming home to no longer exists. Not only does Merrill lack his own pool – a notable absence amongst this veritable excess of backyard oases, and thus a sure sign of his inability to exert order over his life – but with each watery immersion the uncontrollable becomes ever more apparent as the picture of a man in serious mental distress is slowly patched together.
In at the deep end
If America has the monopoly on images of the private pool, across the pond in Europe the municipal version is more often the focus of swimming-related stories, something that’s a necessity of circumstance more than anything else given the absence of a consistently sunny climate like that of California. In Rose Tremain’s novel The Swimming Pool Season (1985), her central characters are a husband and wife who relocate from the UK to the Dordogne after his outdoor swimming pool business has failed. But again, regardless of the difference in size and number of swimmers, images of the public pool in popular culture function with a similar effect to private pools.
Films set in public pools such as Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) and Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (2007) play with the voyeuristic opportunities of the setting, revealing the pool to be a steamy hotbed of desire, not to mention the actual site of seduction. Water Lilies is a tale of teenage obsession and burgeoning adolescent desire amongst the members of a provincial synchronised swimming team in a suburb outside of Paris, that equates water and sexuality; while the grimy but elegant London-set old Victorian baths in Deep End is a maze of intrigue, illicit longing and sexual encounters.
Ultimately sex and death combine and the pool is also an instrument of murder. This same motif can be found in François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003). Sarah Morton, a middle-aged English author suffering from writer’s block seeks solitude and contemplation at her publisher’s idyllic holiday home in rural France. Inspired by the events that subsequently transpire, she writes a story of sex and murder, though whether the action we see play out by the side of the pool is actually happening or merely the creation of Sarah’s imagination, we’re never quite sure.
The holiday villa pool lies somewhere in between the private backyard version and the larger municipal variety. The most interesting vacations tend to involve a group of people not necessarily intimately related to one another. And as in Swimming Pool, one of the themes most often associated with holiday pools is sexual availability; just think of either Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (2010), set in a Tuscan castle, complete with pool surrounded by bathing beauties for the protagonistto feast his eyes on; or Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home (2011) in which Joe and Isabel Jacobs’ holiday with their daughter and another couple is interrupted by the appearance of a young woman with her sights set on Joe.
It’s rare to find something so immediately recognisable the world over as a prized commodity that stands for both the owner’s economic success and firmly demands some sort of symbolic reading. Swimming pools are uncommon hybrids of meaning, something to think about while you lounge by the side of one – private, municipal, or a holiday rental – this summer. If you look beneath the surface, you might get more than you bargained for.