La Piscine

September 19th, 2011


A quick task: think of something impossibly French. Done it? OK. Now multiply it by ten. Good. Next drizzle a layer of Gallic sauce on top. What you end up with is La Piscine: the quintessence of brooding, sensual unpredictability, with class to spare.

The film is set in a broiling Côte d’Azur in August. Handsome couple Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) have rented a handsome villa complete with titular pool which acts as a focal point throughout. Their idyll of love and laziness is broken by the arrival of Marianne’s former lover Harry and teenage daughter Penelope, played by a very young-looking 23 year old Jane Birkin.

Birkin is the picture of dissatisfied innocence, pottering aimlessly in her swimwear. Jean-Paul is enchanted and leaves us in no doubt on this matter. As he edges closer to Penelope so Marianne and Harry are thrust together. The dividing lines between the relationships are blurred.

Yet there is huge and unexpected darkness at the heart of this piece, all the more disturbing for its appearance out of the bleu. It is a genre-busting moment and propels the film into the realms of the detective thriller. By the end covenants have been broken, mistruths uttered and we are back where we started, albeit with two people bound by a terrible secret.

What a film. It reeks of lustful holiday opportunities, sex and bourgeois decadence. The gentle tempo is in keeping with the vacation and the smell is of chlorine and jealousy. It is for the most part a nuanced study of character. Insecurities, barely discernable at the start, become agitated and are slowly prised open.

This, though, is a movie dominated by a shocking act of violence, a scene I consider one of the most appalling in cinematic history on account of its apparent senselessness.

Words > Saul Wordsworth


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