Dangerous Bathing, The Swimmer, and Learning to Stay Afloat

Dangerous Bathing, The Swimmer, and Learning to Stay Afloat
  • 2022-23

In a two-week period in 1993, I finished my PhD, got married, moved home, and started a new job. I still remember the day I posted off my thesis (no email in those days). I came back needing to relax, and took a long soak in the bath.

I’m not sure why it is that the experience of taking a shower or a bath, or even going for a swim in a pool has such positive associations in real life, while culturally – in film and literature at least, these pursuits have a dark and disturbing history.

It starts with the Ancient Greek story of Clytemnestra, as told by Aeschylus. Having taken a lover, and resentful of her husband Agamemnon after he defeated the Trojans, Clytemnestra took her revenge by stabbing him when he had one foot out of the bath - so fulfilling the prophecy that the King of Mycenae would die neither on land nor at sea.

The stabbing in the bath theme was continued in real life two millennia later when one of the leaders of the French Revolution was attacked in the tub by a woman with a kitchen knife. The act is commemorated in Jacques Louis David’s astonishing painting, The Assassination of Marat.

Marat's skin disease could only be relieved by soaking in warm water, so explaining why his assassin found him in the bath, and why Jacques-Louis David, who had visited him just the day before, was able to represent him.

We are arguably at our most vulnerable and exposed in the tub. The impression is reinforced by celebrities such as Jim Morrison, Judy Garland, and Whitney Houston, who were all found dead while taking a bath.  

It is little surprise, then, that the representation of baths and showers in literature and film has been charged with eroticism and the fear of violent attack.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous thriller, Psycho. With 78 camera shots in just 45 seconds of screen time, it seems as if the attacker is plunging the knife into the naked and screaming body of Janet Leigh. In fact, no shot shows the knife going into her flesh. It is an impression generated by the rapid ‘cutting’.

 It took seven days to shoot the scene. No blood is seen, except by implication at the end, when it swirls round the plug hole. Hitchcock used chocolate sauce for this, which worked well as a substitute for blood in a black and white movie.

Filmmakers have also found the bath a useful location to distract the audience and make what could have been a boring scene much more diverting. In his 1965 movie, Pierrot le Fou, Jean-Luc Godard has Jean-Paul Belmondo read to his child from a book on the Spanish painter Velásquez while smoking in the tub.

More recently, in The Big Short, the potentially dull description of the causes of the 2008 financial crisis are made more compelling as Margot Robbie delivers a monologue on economics from a bubble bath, only pausing to take sips from a flute of Champagne.

The blue and shimmery image of the swimming pool, one might think, might exude more of a sense of glamour, and less of a threat than the domestic bath. Yet, time and again, the pool has proved the site of mystery and murder.

The finale of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby sees the hero shot dead in his private pool. The air bed he is lying on abruptly deflates with bullet holes, so operating effectively as a motif for the collapse of Gatsby’s dreams.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) opens with a body being dragged from a swimming pool by policemen. The story rewinds from there, narrated in flashback by the dripping corpse, the pool once more employed as a metaphor - a shallow symbol of Hollywood celebrity and wealth that consumes the hapless scriptwriter, William Holden.

In The Swimmer (1968), Ned (Burt Lancaster) decides to ‘swim home’ across a series of neighbouring pools strung out across the county, the sky and mood darkening to reflect what we learn on his journey, leaving him physically and emotionally adrift.

And has there ever been a more arresting opening to a movie than Sexy Beast (2000)? As retired jewel thief Ray Winstone suns himself beside the pool in his Spanish villa, a huge boulder comes hurtling down the hill, crashing into the pool and narrowly missing our over-heated hero.

After all this, perhaps it is just as well that we do not have a swimming pool at the school.

But the pool can be a useful metaphor for learning. The idea of being thrown in at the deep end, of lane discipline, total immersion, of learning to stay afloat, building endurance - all translate well as concepts for doing well at school.

Water is not our natural element, though it covers most of the planet. We are drawn to it, especially when young. It enjoys an ancient and enduring appeal, despite the cultural horrors it has given rise to.

The summer holidays are over. The outdoor pools will soon close. The laughter of children, receding, will forever echo the youthful memories that inhabit our adult selves.

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

Best IB School in Italy - International School