Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Under-the-surface tension… La Piscine (1969)

Under an unrelenting Provençale sun, a couple lounge around a swimming pool stirring only to slip into the water or to make love. In the sun soaked silence the two seem beaten down into their own stillness by the heat and content to just be where they are in spite of the proximity of “suffering St Tropez”.

So begins Jacques Deray's La unflinching examination of humanity by the pool, stuck between holiday and horror.

Alain Delon plays Jean-Paul Leroy, an advertising copywriter who would rather be a novelist, if he could really find the time and good fortune. His wife is Marianne (Romy Schneider) who is happy to be with her man as he takes a break from the unsatisfying search for perfect copy and the disappointment of his latest book rejection.

The two have a sado-masochistic relationship with Marianne asking Jean-Paul to scratch her back – “no one does it like you…” whilst in the evening the latter takes a leafy branch to gently beat her bare back. There’s something vaguely unsettling in the nature of their relationship although clearly Marienne dotes on Jean-Paul but he is a man deep in disappointment.

Their retreat is disturbed by a phone call from Harry Lannier (Maurice Ronet) one of Jean’s oldest friends and a long-time ex of Marienne’s. He’s in the area and has somehow tracked them down. Marianne is pleased at the prospect of seeing their gregarious and energetic friend but Jean-Paul is reluctant.

Harry arrives in an impressive sports car and with his 18-year old daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin) the result of a long-ago relationship. He’s an extrovert working in the music industry and who has friends all over the place which makes us wonder all the more just why he had to interrupt the Leroy’s holiday for two…

Harry stirs the couple out of their sun-stroked stupor and is warmly received by Marienne – we’re not sure if she’s over Harry and we’re clear that he isn’t over her although whether he’s driven by anything other than the needs to “have” just another beautiful possession is not clear. Harry’s a bit boorish and quite selfish. Marienne, as becomes increasingly clear, is quite self –less.

Jean-Paul is cold towards Harry. Only later do we fully understand how far their relationship goes back. They are boy-hood pals ultimately in long-term competition and not really friends anymore: it’s clear who Harry’s here for.

Harry returns from a trip to St Tropez with a take-away, ready-cooked party – sports cars, guitars and short skirts abound. As things ramp up Harry dances with Marianne, rather too intimately for Jean-Paul to bear.

Already interested in Harry’s daughter, Jean-Paul takes off with her to go swimming… The two arrive back very late and a line has been crossed. Marianne – never convinced that her hold on Jean was absolute and always willing to set him free – offers to leave if Jean wants to pursue Penelope.

Harry and Jean argue in a very male way… not directly addressing the obvious and getting drunk. Harry goes off to St Tropez and returns home late at night… Jean is waiting for him and the two are finally able to tell each other what they think of their poisoned relationship.

Spoilers... Harry falls into the swimming pool and Jean overcome with years of his own failures and Harry’s successes and spurred on by Harry’s over-familiarity with Marianne… drowns him. This scene is horrible to watch as first Harry falls into the pool and then Harry pulls him back but then lets him go… up until the last we expect him to pull Harry free but the act is committed in slow motion fits and starts… Jean making his mind up as he goes along. The cruelty we had seen with Marianne now manifesting itself fully and sickeningly with his pushing Harry slowly and firmly back into the depths.

Jean covers up his crime but after the funeral Inspector Lévêque (Paul Crauchet) arrives from Marseilles homicide to dig deeper than the local police have managed…

Will Jean escape with his crime and will he even admit it? And will Marianne stand by him in spite of what looks like their ruined relationship? She has already sacrificed a lot for this intense and disappointing man will she walk away for herself or stay for him?

Delon and Schneider – who were married in the early 60s – make an excellent couple. There’s an unspoken edge to their relationship that creates a strange mood from the start as they lounge about weighed down by the sun and the pull of the water in the titular pool. They are being sucked together and may never be able to escape from their situation.

Delon is understandably one of the leading men of the period, extreme good looks matched by an enigmatic presence and emotional discordance.

Schneider is easily his match both in terms of emotional intensity and in having the bluest eyes in cinematic history. If you really have to spend two hours watching a couple of actors in bathing costumes…you’d struggle to do better.

Jane Birkin plays well as the bored teenager who provides the tipping point for their marriage breakdown but she’s a little stiff in comparison and even I can pick up her English accent and a rather stilted delivery. But maybe that’s the point.

Maurice Ronet’s Harry is a successful failure who largely has only his own interests at heart. His appreciation for his daughter is more as an object to make him look good – like his sports car – and he only wants Marriene for two things (his need to humiliate his “friend” Jean being the other…).

All is filmed superbly by Jacques Deray who uses the beautiful location to almost claustrophobic effect: the Provençal hills always pressing down on the house, its inhabitants and the swimming pool.

Needless to say the new Blu-ray disc transfer is crystal clear - it's available from all good Amazons... I look forward to my trip to the south of France in summer but there won’t be a pool where we’re staying...

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