With La Piscine / The Swimming Pool, Romy Schneider pretty much ensured any chance of being typecast as an ingénue or being trapped under the shadow of her prior Sissi films was done with (Visonti's Ludwig, excepted). Alain Delon is the film's main star, but Schneider dominates even when she's offscreen – a tribute to her undoubtedly potent (and ravishing) screen presence.
When director Jacques Deray (the Borsalino diptych) was having trouble finding a leading lady, costar Alain Delon suggested ex-fiancee, a casting decision that enhanced ultimately enhanced the actors' already believable portrayal of a couple – athletic ad writer Jean-Paul, and former writer Marianne - whose 2-year romance is really a troubled mix of intense passion, emotional sadism, and suppressed ennui.
Everything seems fine as the couple enjoy some leisure time at a friend's southern France villa, and then Jean-Paul's old friend Harry (Maurice Ronet) drops by with his daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin), and then a mélange of old feelings, jealousies, bad habits, and rage culminate in a destructive act that's punctuated by a surprisingly bold finale.
Right from Harry's arrival, we begin to suspect the seeds of destruction have been sown, particularly since Marianne shares a past relationship with the man, while Jean-Paul's eye for the latest youthful package of curves and cleavage keeps hovering around innocent Penelope – an otherwise dumb little pastry who knows her father's a cold-hearted man incapable of loving or respecting anyone. Ultimately the couples become reconfigured, setting in motion the film's event.
On the negative side, La Piscine is slow and fixates far too long on the characters collective boredom in their wealthy southern France paradise; we end up identifying with the vacationer's plight of having too much time, sleeping in and lying around and drinking for days on end, and it takes a while before the story becomes more edgy.
Deray's casting of Maurice Ronet for his mystery is very craft, because he's also cashing in on the bent friendship and rivalry in Rene Clement's Plein Soleil / Purple Noon (1960), which starred Ronet as a victim, and Delon as a serial killer.
In Piscine, Delon's character is trapped in a rut alterable only by some massive shock, and the actor's innately chilling comportment suits Jean-Paul's transformation from bored to puzzled, predator to victim, and finally a man slowly coming to terms with a dangerous act.
Deray's decision to go slow on pacing has its advantages, though: he masterfully captures behavioral nuances through Jean-Jacques Tarbès's artful cinematography and editorial choices that capture the natural flow of discrete reactions and sexual conflicts in scenes as banal as a patio dinner. In a contemporary American drama, such an allowance would be rare if not taboo under studio control, but here, with such huge stars, it builds on an unsettling tension that keeps thickening over time.
Equally potent is Michael Legrand's fairly simple score that sticks to a main theme, and some sultry, sometimes funky jazz source cues. A major highlight – perhaps riffing the chess game in Norman Jewison's Thomas Crown Affair (1967) which Legrand also scored – has Harry playing the single of his latest recording discovery. Deray handles the scene between four characters by teasing us with shots that infer an inappropriate seduction and simmering desires before revealing where the music's coming from, and how it relates to Harry.
It's a simple little scene, but a brilliant example in teasing audiences by playing with their own imaginations and dirty expectations without doing more than intercutting reaction shots to breathy sax music; no nudity, no raunch, or profanity, but far more potent.
The southern France photography is breathtaking, and Tarbès' photography and the film set décor and costumes evoke the era's style without being dated and gaudy – the kind of look contemporary production designers would craft today with equally tasteful discretion.
Co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere's other work includes Belle de jour (1967), Deray's Borsalino (1970), The Tin Drum (1979), and Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982). Deray would re-team with Delon, Carriere, and cinematographer Tarbès on Borsalino, whereas Ronet would co-star with Schneider in Qui? (1970), and appear with Birkin in Roger Vadim's Don Juan ou Si Don Juan était une femme... / Don Juan 73 (1973).
Long unavailable in North America, Lionsgate's sweet deal with France's Canal Plus brings this erotic classic back into circulation in the Alain Delon Collection, which includes the following films: La Veuve Couderc / The Widow Couderc (1971), Diaboliquement vôtre / Diabolically Yours (1967), La Piscine / The Swimming Pool (1969), Le Gitan / The Gypsy (1975), and Notre Histoire / Our Story (1984).
Note: this title is also available as a 2-disc special edition in France on a standard Region 2 DVD and Blu-Ray from SNC, which features a new 2007 HD transfer, and substantive extras, including an alternate English language version featuring the cast speaking their lines in English.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan