“La Piscine” – Everyone into the pool [MOVIE REVIEW]
“La Piscine” (“The Swimming Pool”), a compelling French thriller from 1969, directed by Jacques Deray and adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière from a script by Jean-Emmanuel Contil, is being rereleased in a new 4K restoration.
Jean-Paul gazes around him, quietly adjusting his bathing suit, his hair, and his demeanor, all sexy bravado slightly overwhelmed by the self-doubt of someone recognizing his good fortune and doubting his place in the sun of this luxurious villa in the hills above St. Tropez. He lies at the edge of the swimming pool as he awaits the appearance of Marianne, his paramour. Bristling with sexual energy, the atmosphere becomes electric with her appearance. She walks confidently to his side of the pool and lies down. The atmosphere is charged as he toys with the strap of her bikini while she protests teasingly. Their movements are positively feline and their passion is unconcealed. And then the phone rings.
Harry, a mutual friend, has arrived unexpectedly. Marianne excitedly invites him to stay; Jean-Paul is less enthusiastic. The relationship each had with Harry, a rich music producer, is fraught with the unspoken and unacknowledged. Jean-Paul is visibly upset by Harry’s imminent appearance.
All blistering self-confidence with an air of disdain for his hosts, screeching up in his new Maserati, Harry has arrived with his 18 year-old daughter Penelope, a girl about whom neither Jean-Paul nor Marianne had any knowledge. Beautiful, ill at ease, moving like a newborn colt, all arms and legs, she is clearly Harry’s newest trophy and being presented as such.
The atmosphere becomes increasingly fraught. Marianne is more attentive to Harry than Jean-Paul would like, seemingly confirming rumors that had long circulated about them but that Marianne has consistently denied. Jean-Paul begins to eye Penelope as a leopard might a gazelle. And gradually Harry takes over. Jean-Paul has refused to go down to St. Tropez, preferring the solitude of the villa— so Harry brings St. Tropez to them. Following a day in town visiting friends, Harry returns to the estate, friends in tow, for a spontaneous party where alcohol flows and the boundary between friends and lovers is blurred. The massive amounts of alcohol consumed is particularly difficult for Jean-Paul, a recovering alcoholic. He retreats.
Tensions arise between Marianne and Jean-Paul. She’ll admit to nothing; he has only innuendo. He is increasingly drawn to Penelope and from there things grow more dangerous and murkier.
The eroticism in the first few minutes of this film set up a sexually charged atmosphere and tension that never lets up. Watching Jean-Paul and Marianne do a mating dance that plays effectively in your imagination is more effective than any overt sex scene you will ever see. It doesn’t hurt that the partners in this ballet are Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, both at the height of their beauty. Delon, a French Paul Newman, often credited with good looks and no substance, is, like Newman, a fantastic actor of enormous depth and subtlety (“Purple Noon,” “Le Samouraï,” “Mr. Klein”). In a few brief moments as he enters the screen for the first time, there is a slight furtiveness in his expression. Despite physical appearances, there is an insecurity within him that will eventually fully blossom when Harry pushes just the right buttons. Schneider, at her most beautiful, conveys the self-confidence of an independent woman, only to see it gradually melt away as Harry begins his dance of seduction.
Maurice Ronet is Harry and it’s difficult to envision anyone else in this role. Ronet, famous for his nuanced performances of the conflicted (“Purple Noon,” “Elevator to the Scaffold”) portrays the master manipulator effortlessly. He injects a sexual undercurrent in his relationship with his daughter that is one-sided. Like in “Purple Noon,” also opposite Delon, he is the cruel puppet master until he is outmaneuvered. He is riveting to watch and dominates most scenes in which he appears.
Jane Birkin, most famous for her collaboration with Serge Gainsbourg on “Je t’aime…moi non plus,” is more effective with body language than dialogue but it is she who ends up holding the key to Harry’s manipulation.
Jean-Jacques Tarbès, the cinematographer, has captured the saturated colors of the Mediterranean. Production designer Paul Laffague (“Le Trou”) marks out the scene in ways large and small that identify the wealth and status of players in this drama. Something I particularly appreciated was the bar cart, ladened simply by a bottle of Johnny Walker Red, Martini and Rossi, Coca Cola, and fresh juice. In France, at that time, there was very little that was more expensive than American scotch, but in that household the supply was endless. Coke, still a relative novelty, was a status symbol and an exotic alternative to Fanta products. The villa notwithstanding, and it was being loaned to Marianne by a friend, this one cart tells us everything we need to know about socioeconomic status.
Costume designer André Courrèges highlights his own haute couture designs with their clean lines. He juxtaposes the whites he is primarily known for with the bright neon colors that were popular at that time. Again, design is used effectively to emphasize understated wealth, which is to say, highly visible.
The writing is taut and the direction is chillingly tense. It’s difficult to pinpoint why you feel tension from the very first frame, but it never lets up even as that tension expands from the sexual to the threatening. “La Piscine” was his first in a long line of successful thrillers. Jean-Claude Carrière, who adapted this script from a screenplay by Jean-Emmanuel Conil, is one of the most storied of all screenwriters. He was Luis Buñuel’s closest collaborator, and worked internationally with Louis Malle, Milos Forman, and Peter Brook. He was the first foreign writer to receive the WGA Screen Laurel and had several Oscar nominations as well as a win and an honorary Oscar.
I can’t believe I didn’t see this film when it first came out and am grateful for this reissue. Don’t miss it.
In French with English subtitles.
Opening May 21 at the Laemmle Monica for one week only.
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