Although screening at the Scandinavian Film Festival, The Together Project (French: L’Effet Aquatique) is very much a French romantic comedy with a sprinkling of Nordic eccentricity. It is Sòlveig Anspach’s third film in her trilogy of comedies (following Back Soon and Queen of Montreuil) and tells the story of a crane driver, Samir (Samir Guesmi), who pretends that he cannot swim in order to woo the headstrong swim teacher at his local pool, Agathe (Florence Loiret Caille). Although Anspach spent most of her career in France, The Together Project is heavily influenced by her Icelandic heritage; the first half of the film takes place in Montreuil, France, and the second half at a conference for swimming coaches in Iceland.
Anspach sadly passed away last year at the age of only 54. With the exception of the past decade, her career was dominated by documentary films. Made in the USA—a documentary about an execution in Texas that Anspach both wrote and directed—won the François Chalais Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. Indeed, Anspach’s experience in the documentary genre shows in The Together Project. Its plot is loose and meandering; it circles in on itself, probing at Agathe’s sentiments in a way that seems more fitting of a tight-lipped documentary subject than a romantic heroine. Although there are times when The Together Project threatens to lose itself in its quirk, it is this unconventional quality that saves it and elevates it to something that is truly special.
The Together Project is a beautiful film. The scenes of Iceland, many of them shot from the sky, are breathtaking. And yet for me, the most stunning scenes take place in the swimming pool at night, when Agathe and Samir are locked in together. The lights ripple across the water and tiptoe across walls. There is both a quietness and an electric energy to this scene that perfectly captures the frisson between them. Another charming scene takes place during their swimming lesson, when Agathe teaches Samir to hold his breath and sit on the bottom of the pool. They move up and down, their bodies clumsily in sync, their faces totally masked by goggles and caps, and we are shown how ridiculousness may be the cousin of intimacy.
That said, there are times when the plot veers a little too far from the plausible. Certain aspects of the film are left unexplained. For example, Samir follows Agathe by pretending to be an Israeli delegate and the film takes its English name from a project he fabricates when put on the spot (he wants to build a pool with the Palestinian delegate and call this ‘The Together Project’). We never find out what happened to the real Israeli delegate, nor is Samir’s disguise ever questioned, despite the fact that he speaks only French and English. Equally frustrating is the fact that Samir never apologises to Agathe for lying to her about his swimming abilities.
Such plot threads are clumsily tied up with Samir’s electrocution. His consequent memory loss, although stirring to watch at times, is a much-laboured trope in the romantic comedy genre (see: 50 First Dates, The Vow, The Notebook). It feels like Anspach could not think of any other way to have Samir and Agathe fall in love without compromising Agathe’s steely character: if she will not forgive him after he chases her to Iceland, she will definitely not forgive him unless a freak accident renders him neurologically compromised. Even more outlandish is the fact that other women continue to throw themselves at Samir despite the fact that he is clearly in a chronic state of confusion where he struggles to even remember his own name.
Even so, The Together Project is a delightful movie with plenty of comic relief provided by its Icelandic characters—Anna (Didda Jònsdòttir) is particularly hilarious and the way she exchanges her job every day with her co-worker Frosti (Frosti Runòlfsson) is a playful dig at Nordic egalitarianism. Although Samir and Agathe’s love story is not entirely convincing, Agathe’s palpable loneliness and Samir’s clear infatuation render it entertaining and touching in its own way.