Thursday, 26 February 2015

1,001 Films: "Deep End" (1970)

Four decades from its initial release, Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End re-emerges as an especially kooky and unpredictable coming-of-age movie, shot through with the weird impulses and reflexes which that other exiled Pole Roman Polanski would demonstrate in his own black comedies of the period (Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant), and working its way, slowly yet inexorably, towards a final mise en abyme. Slightly dozy, virginal 15-year-old Mike (John Moulder-Brown, an early exponent of the Bieber fringe) takes a job attending to the needs of the clientele at his local swimming baths. When not being pestered by Diana Dors and her outrageous football metaphors ("Did you see George Best's six goals against Northampton? You can't keep Georgie out"), Mike becomes enchanted by the cruel beauty of his older colleague Susan (Jane Asher, at her peachiest); she, however, already has her hands full with the attentions of the pool's married yet lecherous swimming coach. Watching an old man plunging off the high board one lunchtime, Mike wistfully bemoans "I can't do that." Susan replies "There's always a first time." You get the picture.

Looked at today, Deep End appears uneven in pitch and pace, on the one hand luxuriating in the baths' hothouse atmosphere, the peeling paint and tantalising proximity to exposed flesh. On the other, in everything from the title on down, the film is a sniggering double entendre. Mike is taught to drive by an experienced older gent ("Release the clutch slowly..."); the baths' cashier accidentally unleashes a spurting fire extinguisher ("It's a monster... it goes on for ever"); Asher has a whole scene devoted to Susan's devouring of the whipped cream atop her hot chocolate ("You'd like some of this, wouldn't you?"). As Dors's presence insinuates, we're not far removed from the tatty British sex comedies of the same period - but then this was exactly the era when Robin Askwith could turn up in a Pasolini movie without anybody batting an eyelid, and "educational" films like Dr. Lotte Fielder's The Science of Sex Part 2 (which the leads troop off to see at one point) were actually playing in semi-respectable picturehouses; among other things, it's a relic of a time when the waters of high and low culture were being muddied in intriguing ways. What's crucial is that this is an outsider's film, one that doesn't for a moment present any of its fumbling as normalised or heartwarming behaviour - partly because it knows what's coming.

Skolimowski is compelled - in his detached, askance way - by the strangeness of the British attitude to sex: the strict delineation of male and female changing areas (and the fluster that results whenever these lines are crossed), the recourse to allegations of "importuning" (an offence that nowadays sounds resolutely Victorian), the members' clubs (pun surely intended) where you have to know the right people or passwords to achieve entry. It's the film that points the way to not just the Confessions... series, but the murderous sexual frustrations of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut: consider, in this light, the mid-film nightmare that sends our hero scuttling around Soho to one of Can's finest musical wigouts, learning along the way that his angel may very well be a centrefold, and encountering a hooker who keeps her most noted clients' signatures as mocking notches on the cast of her broken leg. This version of the paradise-lost story is ragged, certainly - it needed Kubrick to finesse it - but certain elements are already in place, not least the hero driven to distraction by the movements of a redhead. At all points, Moulder-Brown's gangly gaucheness is exactly right, and Skolimowski is canny enough to make the film's one recurring dirty mac - Asher's very swinging yellow number - an object of fascination, rather than revulsion. When Susan finally removes this life preserver, bad things come to pass.

Deep End is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through BFI Flipside.

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