From the sparkling waters of The Graduate to Poltergeist’s oozing vat of corpses, these picks illustrate the incredible versatility of the cinematic swimming pool.
A pool is rarely ever just a pool — in cinema, at least. Admittedly, they do sometimes play a shallower role — as in Caddyshack — but for the most part, whether empty, fully hydrated or filled with something murkier, the cinematic swimming pool is flooded with meaning. Often, they’re there to signify wealth and glamor, symbolize security, and represent danger, but with all that semi-nudity around, they’re also an apt location for narcissism and sexual excess, as climactic scenes from Showgirls, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Spring Breakers have shown. (Not to mention the relief they provide to cinema’s melancholy souls: it’s difficult to feel life’s pressures when you’re floating and weightless.)
However deep their symbolism goes, movie pools are more often than not a character in themselves. With that in mind, we’ve drawn up a list of ten of the greatest swimming pool scenes in movie history, ranging from the monochrome waters of Cat People to the glittering turquoise depths of A Bigger Splash. But before we begin, some honorable mentions: here’s to the drained tanks of Dogtown and Z-Boys and This Must Be the Place; the charged H2O of Bad Education and Water Lilies; the liquid security of Three Colours: Blue and Let the Right One In; and the gloomy waters of Rushmore and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Sunset Boulevard’s iconic opening moments gifted cinema with one of its most enduring images: that of a fully-clothed man floating face-down in a pool. Beginning with a relatively distant shot overlooking the pool and its accompanying mansion, the first glimpse we get of the crime scene instantly lends the film a glamorous air of Gatsby-esque tragedy. This is a high society crime, the most scandalous kind. Even better: Joe Gillis’s (William Holden) posthumous voiceover tells us this murder comes with movie star links.
The voyeurism of that initial shot is tempered with a little pathos when the perspective shifts underwater to bring Joe’s bewildered, frozen face into view. Unbeknownst to us, it’s Joe himself who scoffs at the pathetic irony of the situation: “The poor dope…he always wanted a pool.” By promising audiences a celebrity scandal, and by casting the victim as a casualty of his own ambition, Holden’s Joe sets up one of the first, and perhaps the most definitive, of Hollywood’s cinematic self-portraits – a subgenre we may have tired of now, but that was entirely ground-breaking in its self-awareness at the time of Sunset Boulevard’s release.
The Graduate‘s Californian pool lingers in the film longer than Sunset Boulevard’s does, providing the backdrop to more than one memorable scene, but perhaps the most pivotal of these is the episode that takes place at Benjamin’s (Dustin Hoffman) birthday party. Forced to exhibit his parents’ gift to him – inexplicably, a scuba diving set – in front of all of their upper-middle-class friends, Ben trudges towards their pool in his clunky suit, the heavy material blocking out all sounds bar his deep mechanical breathing.
Like the despondent Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Benjamin yearns for the solitude of the bottom of his pool. Both young men make the same sinking journey to escape reality and wallow in self-pity: while Cameron is paralyzed by fear of his parents, Benjamin is actively rebelling against his. The Graduate is all about generational alienation: Ben recoils from the materialist, claustrophobic world of his parents, the shallowness of which is demonstrated by Mrs. Robinson’s (Anne Bancroft) misery. He’s already cynical about the life his parents lead from the outset of the film, but the scuba scene comes right after he is propositioned by Bancroft’s character. Seeing her generation’s hollow “happiness” clearly for the first time, Ben’s total disillusionment manifests in his decision to sequester himself at the bottom of the pool. Blessedly free of his parents’ meddling for the first time since college, Ben remains there for as long as he can in a sequence explicitly mimicked in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore.
A Bigger Splash
A Bigger Splash is an homage itself: first, to a David Hockney painting, and second, to Jacques Deray’s La Piscine. But Luca Guadagnino’s movie deviates from both of its inspirations. Unlike the Hockney piece, which is painted in the artist’s characteristically uncluttered style, A Bigger Splash is a deep dive into a chaotic summer spent by four emotionally messy people in Italy. And while it does share some traits with La Piscine and François Ozon’s Deray-inspired Swimming Pool, Guadagnino’s film distances itself from its thriller roots, leaning boldly in the direction of an elaborate character study instead.
A Bigger Splash has one climactic poolside scene, but it’s worth noting that the Italian villa pool the film is largely set around is more than just a murder weapon — it’s a movie character in itself. For wealthy hedonists like Ralph Fiennes’ boozy, cookey record producer Harry, the pool is a parading ground for his exhibitionism. It’s where he obnoxiously recounts his rock ‘n’ roll party stories, engages in masculinity-affirming contests and nonchalantly strips nude in full view of his 17-year-old daughter.
It’s fitting, then, that the tension that’s been building between Harry and love rival Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) should come to a head in the same place. Frustrated by the constant presence of his girlfriend’s ex, recovering addict Paul retreats to the poolside to break his sobriety in the dead of night, only to be interrupted by Harry arriving for another impromptu starlight skinny-dip. The latter’s grating presence proves too much, and things break out into a tussle in the water. Lit only by the pool’s underwater lamps, the camera is submerged into the confusion of the fray just in time to capture someone drowning before it rises into a spectacular extreme high angle view of the body sinking to the floor of the pool. At once immersive and isolating, this scene encapsulates the inherent cinematic-ness of a swimming pool and demonstrates the myriad of ways it can be used by providing the inverse counterpart to Sunset Boulevard’s opening scene: a naked body slumped at the bottom of a pool.
Like A Bigger Splash, this nail-biting scene from the original Cat People is a pressing reminder that it’s never a good idea to go swimming in the dark. Blocked from leaving her club’s basement-level locker room by what seems to be a disembodied snarl, Alice (Jane Randolph) flees in the direction of the pool, where she is left with no choice but to jump in. Lit by a single spotlight, she frantically treads water in the relative safety of the center of the pool as cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca manipulates the water’s murky reflection on the walls into something resembling the supernatural. Musuraca further exploits light and shadow to terrifying ends by allowing us to glimpse a hunched silhouette stalking around the pool, providing Alice – and us – with the most tangible evidence yet that she really isn’t alone.
That we never see the creature hounding her is undoubtedly down to the film’s budgetary and technological limits, but the chilling effect director Jacques Tourneur manages to achieve nevertheless is a reminder that the unseen is often scarier than anything a special effects department could dream up. If you’re still unconvinced that the visual economy of this scene wasn’t ahead of its time, look to 2014’s hit horror It Follows for conclusive proof of its enduring influence.
Jonathan Glazer‘s electrifying feature debut leads us out of the basement and back into the aquamarine waters of a sun-warmed pool. Having snubbed life in England because he considers it a “grey, grimy, sooty […] toilet”, Sexy Beast’s ex-con protagonist Gal (Ray Winstone) has happily installed himself in a cliff-side villa on the Costa del Sol. In his narration of the opening scene, he sums up the pure luxury of a poolside in summer: “It’s ridiculous… tremendous… fantastic… fan-dabby-dozy-tastic.” Pools are crucial to Sexy Beast – think of the spectacular underwater heist Gal pulls off back in London – but it’s the pristine waters of his custom-made Spanish pool that provide the film with its most suggestive setting.
Pools epitomize luxury, indulgence, and wealth, but a sensational bird’s eye shot from cinematographer Ivan Bird reveals the pool is also emblematic of that other great love of Gal’s life: his wife Deedee (Amanda Redman). Outlined in tiles at the bottom of the pool are two interlinked hearts, and what happens to them next is what makes this scene so striking: as Gal gets up from his deckchair to seek some relief from the sweltering heat, an enormous rock rolls down the hill overlooking his house. Just missing him by a hair’s breadth, the boulder lands into the pool with a seismic splash, drenching Gal and fracturing the pool’s romantic insignia in the process. How’s that for a metaphor?
There’s no love to be found in this noir-ish sci-fi from French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, which is widely considered one of his last accessible works — although, in true Godard style, it remains far from a conventional narrative film. American secret agent Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is undercover and on a mission to assassinate both the human and robotic rulers of the loveless, Orwellian nightmare world of Alphaville. This is a city runs on a strict code of pure logic; anyone caught displaying emotion, whether happy or sad, will earn themselves one of the death sentences frequently meted out by Alpha 60, the city’s despotic computer overlord.
The piscine is where Alphaville’s firing squad is based, and it’s where this scene is set. We watch as “irrational” criminals, guilty of such crimes as mourning their wives, take turns standing on a diving board on which they’ll deliver their final words. The echoey acoustics of the pool room give their impassioned speeches and the shots that follow a distinctly eerie tone, an effect that is amplified by the bizarre sight of lithe synchronized swimmers diving in to retrieve the bodies seconds after they hit the water. Godard’s right-hand cinematographer Raoul Coutard captures the whole horror in quotidian black-and-white, heightening Alphaville’s uncomfortable sense of contemporaneity and forging a lasting cinematic link between the sight and sounds of an indoor community pool and the terrible spectacle of mass execution.
Pools have been a staple of unsettling movies like Alphaville and Cat People for decades, but it wasn’t until Poltergeist’s stomach-churning vat of corpses that their potential for horror was fully realized. In a scene later referenced by Jennifer’s Body and Dario Argento’s Phenomena, a mother terrorized by evil spirits is dragged into a pool full of putrefying corpses (which were, incidentally, real). JoBeth Williams’ character writhes through the mud as she tries to escape and save her children, but the cadavers and coffins keep erupting out of the sludge to meet her. More than just a reminder not to build houses on cemeteries, Poltergeist pioneered the idea of the pool as a homicidal space, giving rise to the deadly waters of This House Possessed, The Legacy and 12 Feet Deep.
Romeo + Juliet
Pools don’t always have to be terrifying, though. The titular lovers in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Shakespeare reimagining are tied to the romantic leitmotif of water from the moment they meet – they first lock eyes from either side of a glittering aquarium – so it’s apt that the two should reunite in a pool, rather than the traditional balcony, for their first meeting alone.
Thrust into the water together after Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) takes Juliet (Clare Danes) by surprise, the young lovers are instantly granted a greater level of intimacy than they’ve yet had: all physical barriers between them are erased, and with them, the need to adhere to decorum. This total vulnerability in the water emphasizes the emotional directness of their infamous exchange, an effect intensified by the camera being at water-level.
Where A Bigger Splash’s pool scene made use of its night-time setting to disorient viewers, Romeo + Juliet plays on the inherent romance of the dark, as the swooning strains of Craig Armstrong’s score radiate a warmth matched by gentle lapping sounds and the softly rippling reflections of the water on the pair’s faces. The whole scene has a tender sensuality about it – an atmosphere only broken when the water briefly becomes Romeo’s shelter from Juliet’s guards – especially when the star-crossed lovers plunge back underwater for a kiss that inspired similar smooches in The Beach and Whip It.
I am Cuba
Never has black and white looked so vibrant. This gorgeous opening scene from a relatively unknown Soviet-Cuban 1964 production so wowed Paul Thomas Anderson that it formed the main inspiration for his own pool scene extraordinaire in Boogie Nights.
Beginning on the rooftop of a Havana hotel, cameraman Alexander Calzetti snakes through a beauty pageant walk, scales down multiple stories and plunges his lens underwater in one impossibly acrobatic single take. Indeed, the sequence was so radical that I Am Cuba’s filmmakers had to invent new technology to make it possible.
But its innovative methods aren’t the real crux of this scene’s charm. With a lively swing score and the shores of the Caribbean lying just within sight, I Am Cuba’s opening moments completely counter the dominant image associated with post-revolutionary Cuba. Tuxedoed waiters serve drinks to guests garbed in prints so vivid you’re prone to forgetting this isn’t shot in color, with that effect being boosted ten-fold when a bikini-clad woman leads the camera into the pool and under the water. Remarkably, Western audiences only first witnessed director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky’s dazzling work thirty years after it was shot, that being thanks to the efforts of US film festival programmers and eminent patrons like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola.
Speaking of under-seen classics, Frank and Eleanor Perry‘s The Swimmer is overflowing with pool scenes. Having decided to swim his way home via a “river” of backyard pools, suburban stud Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) glides across serene waters in mansion backyards, fights his way through over-crowded community pools and otherwise swims through every watery square-inch his affluent neighborhood can offer.
There is one moment that stands out amongst the rest for its metaphorical implications, though: the scene in which the deluded Ned delivers a spur-of-the-moment swimming lesson to a young boy in an empty pool. The two front crawl and breaststroke across the expanse of dry blue tiling, kidding themselves that they’re really doing it. Perfectly encapsulating the way Ned has been drained of all sense of reality, this allegorical scene lays bare his total reliance on fantasy to get through the day: as he puts it himself, “If you make-believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you.”
(For more Swimmer-themed action, try La Controfigura, a film about a film in which an Italian body double re-traces Ned’s quest across the pools of Marrakech.)