There is swimming, and there is ocean swimming, and then there is swimming in the Med. While the Mediterranean represents a scant .7 percent of the ocean surface, globally speaking, the sea and its beaches receive a disproportionate share of our attention. In France, in particular, the country’s beaches serve as a cornerstone of national culture. The sacrosanct August vacation, when throngs of Français from all walks of life frolic in the sand under a soleil de plomb, is considered to be an inalienable right. Where else do liberté, égalité, and fraternité mix and mingle quite so nicely?
Countless artists have romanticized and immortalized the Med—Matisse, Monet, and Dufy most memorably—but leave it to the filmmakers to turn its waters into a quasi-sexual object of desire. Is it even possible to grace the beaches of St. Tropez without recalling Brigitte Bardot’s coastal ravishing in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman? Surely there was a stampede of vacationers to the Riviera in the wake of Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. (If it escapes memory, fear not. Not much happens except for a lot of sea bathing by Jean Seberg and Deborah Kerr.) In Contempt, Jean-Luc Godard’s retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, Bardot’s Penelope-esque Camille signifies the end of her marriage by diving headfirst into the waters off of Capri’s Casa Malaparte. And more recently, Julia Stiles’s sleuthing Georgina Clios, who is plucked from the sea by a dashing businessman in the television drama Riviera. If Mediterranean beaches are crawling with sunseekers, we have the enduring power of cinema to blame.