An unemployed writer, Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) lives with his lover Marianne (Romy Schneider) in a luxury villa amidst the sun-kissed vistas of St. Tropez. Their sultry summer idyll is disrupted by the arrival of Marianne’s former boyfriend, avuncular jazz musician Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his enigmatic teenage daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin). As the days while away, the houseguests circle each other with ambiguous intent until long-buried tensions and rivalries resurface with murderous consequences.
Not to be confused with the equally compelling and seductive 2003 thriller from François Ozon starring Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier, La Piscine a.k.a. The Swimming Pool reunited former real-life couple Alain Delon and Romy Schneider for a dreamy and languid psychological drama that gains an added frisson from their romantic history. Caught at the height of their glamour, both stars are almost ridiculously gorgeous and with the bulk of the drama confined poolside, the sensual cinematography savours their smooth, bronzed bodies transforming them into an integral facet of the story. It is a movie of sleek surfaces: from the those crystal clear blue waters, to the glistening chrome of Harry’s fantastic sports car, and the slinky, suntanned curves of Schneider and Birkin, both visions of bikini-clad loveliness. Yet beneath that seductive surface lurk petty jealousies, anxieties and disturbingly ambiguous relationships.
Smooth-talking Jean-Paul (“My tragedy is that I fall in love with almost every pretty girl and it paralyses me”) is seemingly caught in arrested development, reluctant to commit even to someone as selflessly loving as Marianne, and eager to one-up his symbolic father figure Harry. Outwardly affable Harry loves to flaunt his worldliness, but holds everyone including his friends in secret disdain and exhibits a queasy, almost paedophilic possessiveness towards his daughter. Penelope seems passive, an innocent, yet there is something disturbing about her detached manner and how casually she shrugs off the unfolding traumas. Even Marianne, who comes to dominate the film’s latter half, claims to be happy since Jean-Paul is “all she ever wanted”, yet is rather too eager to flaunt this new romance (and later her own beauty) in front of the jilted Harry.
Effortlessly chic and sexy, yet more cerebral than most Jacques Deray movies. When Deray passed away in 2003, the English-language press curiously likened him to a French Alfred Hitchcock, a title more befitting his fellow countrymen Claude Chabrol or Henri-Georges Clouzot. Deray was more solid craftsman than visionary, a specialist in tailoring fast-paced action-thrillers for big name stars, most notably Alain Delon with whom he re-teamed several times and Jean-Paul Belmondo, who headlined Le Marginal (1983) and Le Solitaire (1987). One year after La Piscine, Deray paired them both in Borsalino (1970) and wound up creating one of the biggest box-office smashes in French cinema history. Working with co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, Deray displays an artistry often absent from his blockbusters and yields great suspense from things that remain unsaid.
For the most part, La Piscine moves at its own deliberate pace and requires viewers who willingly surrender to its spell. The shift into thriller territory comes with a murder all the more shocking for being so casual and reminds us that, beneath that pretty boy image, Delon often excels at playing killers and psychopaths: e.g. Plein Soleil (1960) and Le Samurai (1967). Romy Schneider dominates the latter half, adopting an almost maternal air amidst the aftermath that plays like a metaphor for seeing someone you loved in a new light for the first time. Features an achingly beautiful score by Michel Legrand.