Tuesday 3 May 2011

No heavy petting: "Deep End"

Hot on the heels of Essential Killing, widely regarded as a return to form for Jerzy Skolimowski, the BFI issue a new print of the director's cult 1970 item Deep End. Four decades on, the film reveals itself as an especially kooky and unpredictable coming-of-age movie, shot through with the weird impulses and reflexes that 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 is 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 [see above] devoted to Susan's devouring of the whipped cream atop her hot chocolate ("You'd like some of this, wouldn't you?").

As hinted by Dors' presence, 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 - 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 to 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 the signatures of her most noted clients as mocking notches on the cast of her broken leg. (Ah, the days before super-injunctions.)

This version of the paradise-lost story is ragged, certainly - it needed Kubrick to finesse it (and, some might argue, stifle all its unruly life) - but the bare bones, if you like, are already in place: the hero driven to distraction by the movements of a redhead, like a moth being consumed by the naked flame that compels him so. At all points, Moulder-Brown's gangly gaucheness is exactly right, and Skolimowski is canny enough to, in this instance, 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 re-released in selected cinemas from Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment