The Swimmer, Columbia Pictures, 1968
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.
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.