Sink or swim: Why a French film made a splash and an English version flopped

PUBLISHED: 15:31 26 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:01 26 November 2018

Le Grand Bain is one of French cinema's biggest  hits of the year, while English version Swimming With Men made an underwhelming plop in UK cinemas. Photo: Mika Cotellon

Le Grand Bain is one of French cinema's biggest hits of the year, while English version Swimming With Men made an underwhelming plop in UK cinemas. Photo: Mika Cotellon

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JASON SOLOMONS on a tale of two films of the same story, and their very different fates.

When we talk about entente cordiale, it very rarely refers to the French and British film industries. First of all, as Francois Truffaut infamously remarked to Alfred Hitchcock, the French think of “British” and “cinema” as two incompatible words. Secondly, we think their films are pretentious or prone to slapstick and mime.

So, how did this year bring us two versions of the same comedy film, one in French, starring Mathieu Amalric, Guillaume Canet and Benoit Poelvoorde, the other in English, starring Rob Brydon, Jim Cartwright and Rupert Graves?

Both are about a male synchronised swimming team and, it turns out, both are based on a Swedish film that became a British documentary. Confused?

The French got there first, when Le Grand Bain (subtitled Sink or Swim) premiered at Cannes in May. It provided the high spot for local crowds, bringing home glamour to the red carpet and, playing in a non-competitive slot, giving a traditionally serious film festival a welcome bit of comic relief.

“I was very worried about Cannes,” Le Grand Bain director Gilles Lellouche tells me now. Lellouche himself is better known as an actor with several internationally-known French films to his credit, such as Little White Lies, Tell No One and The Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, so the travails of a director presenting a film at Cannes were new to him.

“I thought they’d just invited my film because they were desperate, they wanted some big French stars on the red carpet and a bit of a laugh at our expense,” he says. “That premiere screening felt like five years long to me, but when I heard laughter gradually bursting out, like popcorn popping in different spots around that huge room, that was the biggest relief I’ve ever had.”

Now on general release in France six months after its Cannes splash, Le Grand Bain has become one of French cinema’s biggest hits of the year, currently with more than three million admissions after two weeks at number one at the box office.

By contrast, the British version of the movie, called Swimming With Men, may well have passed you by. It slipped out on DVD last week following a rather underwhelming plop at the box office, barely making the British chart’s top 10.

That’s something of disappointment for a film with a seemingly well-liked cast, including television regular Brydon, a Downton Abbey stalwart in Cartwright, and popular faces such as Daniel Mays and This is England’s Thomas Turgoose. The irony of the French film’s international title of Sink or Swim can’t be lost on anyone comparing the two.

Both films feature a poster of their motley crew of males in their swimming trunks by the side of a municipal pool, none of them exactly what one might call hunky or attractive. Both films were happy to be known as “The Full Monty in Speedos”.

Lellouche smiles at all this when I meet him at Le Grand Bain’s British premiere last week, where a sold-out screening filled the London French Institute’s Ciné Lumière before the film went on a preview tour of the UK as part of this year’s French Film Festival.

“Of course, the odd thing is that this is a very English type of movie. In fact, we don’t make films like this in France, you know, the social comedy, you’re the experts in it, so I took all my inspiration from your cinema.”

As well as The Full Monty, Lellouche cites Trainspotting as his touchstone – “It’s sordid and tragic and funny and frightening and very cool” – which may explain why his film had just that bit more energy and laughter than the British version which, although sweet and touching, didn’t actually make me really laugh at any point.

“Well, the idea of male synchronised swimming is funny enough on its own,” says Lellouche. “You don’t need to embellish that with more gags – the men in their trunks, lifting each other up, with nose clips is all the comedy you need.”

He’s right, especially after describing a tortuous route to the big screen for his movie. “I’d spent ages, years, thinking of a film that would bring all I wanted to say together. I’d written a film about bank robbers, which didn’t work, so I abandoned that; another draft was a different heist movie, but I hated it, and then my producer friend rang me and told me to watch this Swedish documentary that was playing on French TV on Arte (the high-end arts and documentary channel). I switched over and I had an epiphany. I had been through so many scenarios, but never in another million years would I have thought of male synchronised swimming.”

Lellouche explains that he got in touch with the documentary producers, but heard nothing so went ahead drafting his screenplay anyway, but stopped when he learned another French filmmaker, Stephane Giusti, had seen the same doc and written a film he was already close to casting and that Eric Cantona was rumoured to be involved. “I think they were even going to try and make it in England,” recalls Lellouche. “But then, eventually, nothing happened with that so I carried on with my version, and got to the casting and prep when I heard about this English version in the works, from the same company (Met Film) who’d made the original documentary. And I thought: ‘Oh, mon dieu, c’est pas possible…’”

According to Lellouche, he called the English company and they agreed to not tread on each other’s toes. I have heard on good authority that a bit of money changed hands, too, giving a boost to the English producers, one of whom, Dylan Williams, made the original doc, Men Who Swim in 2010, a film itself based on the true story of the Stockholm Art Swim Gents who formed their team “as a protest against the meaninglessness of life” and which was turned into a reasonably successful local comedy Allt Flyter (The Swimsuit Issue).

Eventually, Le Grand Bain got a prize slot at Cannes; Swimming With Men secured Closing Night gala at the Edinburgh International Film Festival before its damp squib theatrical run during the long hot summer.

In places the films are identical – both start when the downcast protagonist visits his local pool and spots a disparate group of overweight middle-aged men splashing about to no great effect; there are training montages and comely female coaches (Charlotte Riley in the English version, Virginie Efira and Leila Bekhti in the French one) and arguments over which songs to use for the routines; while both films climax when, after filling in unlikely national entry forms online, all the lads head together to the world championships in Norway.

“I don’t know what went wrong for the British film because I haven’t seen it,” says Lellouche. “I was terrified when it didn’t do so well because I thought, well, that’s it, nobody wants to see a film about male synchronised swimmers, so that’s my directing career, you know, sinking to the bottom.”

The opposite happened. There’s an under-the-radar film festival every year in Angouleme at the end of August, used by the French industry to test audience appetite. “You can have as many as 15 screenings there. So if you can’t fill out one or two, you’ve got a flop on your hands, but if you fill four or five shows, the producers and the marketing guys are in heaven, they’ve got something to work with,” reveals Lellouche. “That’s the unofficial, the business insider rule. We filled 17 screenings. They had to put on two extra, because people wanted to come back to see it again.”

This wave machine of popular acclaim has obviously continued, buying into the peculiar casting and serio-comic vibe around a bunch of downcast, provincial fortysomethings who find renewed purpose in their life as they train to enter the male synchronised swimming world championships in Norway.

A particularly hang-dog Amalric provides the main character and voice over narration; Canet (with whom Lellouche has made 10 films, including a forthcoming sequel to the hit ensemble drama Little White Lies, which Canet has again directed and again stars Canet’s wife Marion Cotillard) plays against type as an arrogant yuppie; Belgian Poelvoorde provides the gurning slapstick as ever, as well as the inevitable pee-in-the-pool gag; and there’s a plum role, as the pool caretaker, for an actor called Philippe Katerine, better-known in France as a singer of novelty hits.

Perhaps more noticeably, there’s also a show-stealing comeback for 1990s actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, playing a frustrated rock star who lives in a camper van. “When I was a drama school in the late 1980s, early 1990s, Anglade was the main man, the one we all wanted to be. He’d done Nikita, and La Reine Margot and Killing Zoe and just brought a new energy and danger to French screen acting,” recalls Lellouche of Anglade.

“But he’s a man of his own taste and he’d gone off the scale a bit, doing lots of TV films. And I’d see him around town, because we live in the same quarter of Paris, and he’d be this lovely family man, taking his two kids to the shops. So when I had to cast this character, of a man who had success a long time ago and who was now struggling to be a good father, he came to mind. It was between him and Christophe Lambert, actually, but I’m glad for Jean-Hugues – he texted to thank me for reviving his career. He said it’s been so long since he was in a hit, he’d forgotten that it felt good.”

I wonder what it is about this Grenoble-set film, which has charm but often veers in tone between comedy and miserable introspection, that has so chimed with the French public, when such a similar version simply didn’t interest British cinema goers at all this year?

“There’s a crisis of masculinity in France right now,” says Lellouche. “And we’re in the middle of a war of the sexes that nobody really wants. This Cannes was all about feminism and #MeToo, a movement that has enveloped the film industry more than any other. So I was concerned nobody would want to hear about the troubles of men with all the focus now on women.

“But I think my film shows men simply don’t know how to behave anymore. They want the right car, the watch, the house, the lifestyle, to lead their families with honesty and to look after them – but they know this is getting harder to do. They’re lost. I sense a big loss of joy, desire, and hope across France, a paralysis, maybe due to lack of work.

“You’ll notice all the businesses in my film are failing, and some of that is comic but it isn’t a joke – a flat economy leads to flat men. They don’t know what are the markers of a man any more, so maybe Le Grand Bain shows them another way?”

Lellouche shrugs an almost comic Frenchman’s shrug and takes a slug of a now-cold espresso. “What do I know? Maybe I’m saying: just dive in to something, that men need to fall in love with themselves and their fellow men again, before they can make progress. Voila, c’est tout.”

As the strange affair of these two synchronised films show, in Britain and in France, life, like the movies, can be a rough case of sink or swim.

Le Grand Bain previews play as part of the French Film Festival UK (for screenings see frenchfilmfestival.org.uk); Swimming With Men is out on DVD now

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