• Gilles Lellouche on the set of 'Sink or Swim', his directorial debut. (Tresor Films)
Coming at a time when France is racked with division, star-turned-director Gilles Lellouche found emotional poetry and a more tender masculinity in the water.
Stephen A. Russell

29 Mar 2019 - 9:55 AM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2019 - 4:14 PM

There’s more to life than sex, cars and soccer. At least according to charismatic French actor-turned-writer/director Gilles Lellouche, 46, whose circle of male friends are very comfortable talking about their emotional wellbeing. Audiences at home have apparently been surprised by the tender solidarity on show in his first solo directorial debut Sink or Swim (Le Grand Bain), a sweet-natured comedy about middle-aged men finding common (if not entirely coordinated) purpose in synchronised swimming.

“Most of the people in France said that it was unusual to see guys talking like this,” Lellouche shrugs with a grin as we sit down in a corner nook of Melbourne’s Sofitel on Collins Street. “Not for me, and this is the way I want to show men in our century.”

Starring big names like Mathieu Amalric and Guillaume Canet, the feel-good film has made north of $30 million at home. Securing a rare nod for comedy, it made official selection at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and also scored a Best Supporting Actor César for Philippe Katerine. Australian audiences are able to dive in during this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival, where Lellouche also appears in front of the camera in foster care drama In Safe Hands.

Relaxed in a white t, grey jeans and a fawn-coloured suede bomber jacket, Lellouche exudes confidence and good humour, with his spirit buoying Sink or Swim’s story of a ragtag bunch of men learning to lean on one another, as aided by no-nonsense coaches played by Virginie Efira and Leïla Bekhti. The screenplay, co-written with Ahmed Hamidi and Julien Lambroschini, began life a little differently, with depressed bank robbers, but apparently it wasn’t singing. Then Lellouche saw Swedish documentary Men Who Swim, about that country’s all-male synchronized swim team, and it snapped into formation. Indeed, the doco was so compelling it also inspired an English version, Oliver Parker’s Swimming With Men.

“I was looking for something poetic and melancholic, and when I saw this documentary I said, ‘oh my god,’ it was exactly what I needed to say,” Lellouche elaborates. “Everyone needs to come together, because if one makes a mistake, everybody makes a mistake. It’s a little bit ridiculous and beautiful at the same time.”

Casting Amalric as down-in-the-dumps Bertrand, long-term unemployed and testing his family’s patience, was central to selling the concept, Lellouche says. First broaching the idea with him during publicity rounds for Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Families, in which they starred together in 2015, Amalric was immediately intrigued. Two years later, when Lellouche shot him a text asking to meet up and discuss the script, Amalric asked, “do I have to come with my swimming suit?”

A big music fan, Lellouche had a hoot playing an outrageous wedding singer in last year’s festival opener C’est la Vie, and channels some of that spunk in the soundtrack to Sink or Swim, from a fun nod to Vangelis’ seminal Chariots of Fire synth score and an opening line referencing his favourite 80s band Tears for Fears. “‘Welcome to your life, there’s no turning back,’ it’s exactly my characters,” he says. “Because they are 40 or 50, I needed to get the music they would listen to when they were teenagers, when they used to be full of dreams.”

A four-month shoot was luxurious for Lellouche, but his actors underwent three months of full-on training before the cameras rolled, continuing throughout, handling roughly 80 per cent of the water moves, only skipping the trickiest upside down stuff. Putting it all out on show in teeny bathers was a great leveller. “They are not stars anymore, there is no ego, no dignity,” Lellouche chuckles. “Forget about it. We are all going to be ugly, so let’s do it. It was really incredible, because for the first two days there were bathrobes, but after that there were no more robes, and everyone is slouched like monkeys.”

Lellouche came to acting in a roundabout fashion, with a youthful fascination for drawing and graffiti art giving way to theatre school, which led to unemployment, then a career shooting hip hop videos before his delayed debut in Nicolas Hourès’ 1995 short Ah Les Femmes. He has racked up 67 credits since, and reckons that experience has helped him become a better director, communicating easily with his actors and not treating them, “like they are an alien from another planet.” It also helps him delineate their roles. “I have to take my dreams away and to be concrete, but when you are an actor, you have to forget about the concrete and be in a fantasy, throwing away everything of you to become another.”

A dreamer, he says he has no second album syndrome for his next movie. “I know the movie business quite well now. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get a César for me this time. It’s too soon, no way, it’s your first movie, calm down. This is how it works in France, so I don’t want to put pressure on myself. I just want the pleasure of freedom, so I can make what I want.”

What comes next might surprise fans of Sink or Swim. “I am going to try and make a musical romantic comedy, but really violent,” he says. “I like it when it’s twisted.”

Sink or Swim

Saturday 2 November, 7:30PM on SBS World Movies (streaming at SBS On Demand after broadcast)

Belgium, France, 2018
Genre: Comedy
Language: French
Director: Gilles Lellouche
Starring: Mathieu Amalric, Guillaume Canet, Marina Fois, Benoit Poelvoorde
What's it about?
40-year-old Bertrand (Amalric) has been suffering from depression for the last two years and is barely able to keep his head above water. Despite the medication he gulps down all day, every day, and his wife's encouragement, he is unable to find any meaning in his life. Curiously, he will end up finding this sense of purpose at the swimming pool, by joining an all-male synchronised swimming team.

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