Often misattributed to the thriller genre, Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) plays out like a dark morality drama where the matters of sex and death intersect with quiet command. Released to great fanfare in 1969, Deray’s meditation on the hip circles of the upper crust may be lost on newer generations, its Euro-slick production a thing of the past and, therefore, outmoded. The film, however, is put together with a sure hand and never lets a threadbare detail escape its ever-observing lens.
Starring the then powerhouse couple of the European movie star elite, Romy Schneider and Alain Delon play lovers who find themselves in the quandary of infidelity and murder under the blistering Mediterranean sun.
Lazily tanning themselves and splashing around in a grand swimming pool in a villa that overlooks the French Riviera landscape, Jean-Paul (Delon) and his girlfriend Marianne (Schneider) have no definite plans for their summer. Jean-Paul is a would-be writer who has acquiesced to the disappointments in life by taking a job at an ad agency. Marianne, who was once a successful journalist, is now between jobs and has taken to lounging around on what seems a permanent vacation.
Their idyllic lives are interrupted by the sudden arrival of their longtime friend Harry (Maurice Ronet). Harry has brought along his 18-year-old daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin) and the four settle down for what is expected to be a simple stay-over.
However, it is soon revealed that Harry was once Marianne’s lover. This doesn’t sit well with Jean-Paul, who can do little to hide the resentment and jealousy he feels. Marianne seems oblivious to the tension and continues to engage openly and heartily with Harry.
Meanwhile, Penelope has her own bone of contention; she begrudges the time she is forced to spend with her father, describing him unflatteringly as something of a rich deadbeat. Bored at first, Penelope eyes the perimeters of her new environment with indifference, until she discovers what a thrilling companion Jean-Paul makes. This greatly unnerves Harry, who knows firsthand the kind of amorous and unstable man Jean-Paul is.
Things come to a boiling point when Harry, drunk one night, takes a swing at Jean-Paul and then falls into the swimming pool. Rather than help Harry out, Jean-Paul proceeds to drown him and then hurries to hide the implicating evidence.
La Piscine, though often billed as a thriller, should not be approached as one. The expectations for a pot-boiler will not be met and this will likely disappoint the uninformed viewer. The film, however, makes for an excellent human drama in which the moralities of the upper class (or lack thereof) are routinely called into question.
The narrative’s greatest aid is the pristinely gorgeous photography that captures these characters in glacially contained frames. Cinematographer Jean-Jacques Tarbès manages a postcard-perfect aesthetic that confines the beauty of both the actors and the scenery to the untouchable elegance of a well-designed shot. There is no inordinate camerawork here; through the sublimely handsome and static framing, the deeply festering emotions are rendered even more frightening in their pathetic fallacy of twisting eels skimming the bottom of a cool and clear aquarium tank.
Deray remains an unobtrusive director, allowing his actors to guide the story simply through the expression of various emotions. His style is a calculation of distance, narrowing in on certain moments when we are meant to see the very fine brushstrokes of an actor’s performance, and pulling away when the larger picture reveals details only discerned in wider scopes. There is none of the infamous “filmmaker ego” here that threatens to interfere with the proceedings; a refreshing respite from the many films in which a director endeavors to leave an identifying and indelible thumbprint.
For their parts, the actors are admirably restrained, leaving viewers with an appropriate amount of guesswork to make them think deeply about the actions taking place. Like a cat’s cradle of self-doubt, suspicion, and interminable lusts, these characters are pulled to demanding extremes. You wouldn’t know it from the placid manners that inform their exchanges, but the subtleties and minimalist deployments are telling; every look that crosses a face is one of wonder or poisonous intent–a delivery of subterfuge that only further confuses the contraption of these very complicated relationships.
The film is perhaps a half-hour too long, the sudden dour turn of events taking place near its dénouement. But the long stretch toward the last third allows for a lingering mist of presentiment to sustain its evil-under-the-sun mood splendidly.
Schneider is, as always, the supreme embodiment of poise and worldly glamour. A skilled actress who is a master of cross-purposes, she evinces emotions of ambiguous design as she crosses the scenery with deliberate and nuanced steps. Delon, a short measure away from the matinée idol, subverts his title as the handsome leading man through an unruffled and impersonal calm that belies little if anything. Even in his moment of murder he appears eerily composed and detached. Ronet, used to playing nice guys and improbable third wheels, allows his character to unfold leisurely and methodically until his very dying moment.
It is Birkin who surprises here. Known for much of her career as Serge Gainsbourg’s wife and protégé, as well as the requisite poppet in the requisite movie love triangle, Birkin flits around silently and menacingly, sowing seeds of doubt in the three heads who look on her with both suspicion and awe. Deliciously underscoring her Penelope with a well-played sour streak, she precipitates an atmosphere of folly and dread.
Criterion’s Blu-ray release restores La Piscine’s original print to a glorious sheen. Saturated with sensuous summer color and fresh, natural light, this new transfer reveals the true pleasures of the film’s photography: a sensational overlapping of hues, in which cerulean blues, Adriatic purples, and lemon-colored sunlight mix as smoothly as the ingredients in a daiquiri cocktail.
Sound-wise, this is mainly a talky film. The audio is clean and clear, with dialogue mostly in French with optional English subtitles. The film also features an apropos soundtrack of chi-chi Euro-jazz; a suitable accompaniment for the clinking-wineglass clique that populates La Piscine’s world of jet-setters and sunbathers.
There are a few notable features here, including a documentary on the film, as well as archival footage of the actors and director, and an interview with film scholar Nick Rees-Roberts. The two most interesting supplements are an English-language version of the film and an alternate ending. The alternate ending is, in fact, an additional 30 seconds of footage that was meant to appease film censors in 1960s Spain (then under the rule of the Franco regime). This additional footage adds nothing to the film and is really just tacked on at the end to appropriate some sense of moral closure. An informative essay booklet, written by critic Jessica Kiang, rounds out the package.
Sultry, hypnotic, and quietly ruthless, La Piscine is a slow-burner rife with impossible beauty and turbulent emotion. It proposes a strange predicament of action and desire, where the only possible result is one of abated virtue. It may not hit home for everyone, but for those that it does, it lingers like a sunburn long after a seemingly harmless day by the pool.