Saturday, 31 March 2012

La Piscine

More than forty years after its original cinematic release, La Piscine has been newly restored. Starring Alain Delon and Jane Birkin, it’s a sensual film about a crime of passion set in the oppressive heat of a St Tropez summer.

Jean-Paul and Marianne are an attractive couple enjoying a lazy poolside holiday. They are joined by Harry, a successful record producer, friend and former lover of Marianne. With him is Penelope, his teenage daughter – to whom Jean-Paul takes an obvious shine. Marianne and Harry, meanwhile, also appear to harbour a lingering attraction to one another.

After days of simmering sexual tension, things finally come to a head. During a drunken altercation, one of the party is left floating face down in the swimming pool: a tragic victim of the seething resentment and sexual politics on display.

Can the remaining relationships survive the death? And will the perpetrator be brought to justice?

La Piscine aims from the start to display its overt sexuality on screen. Opening with Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) by the pool, director Jacques Deray immediately throws the audience into the midst of their passionate relationship. Both are close to naked, their beautiful bronzed flesh glistening in the sunlight. They kiss and hold each other in a show of blatant sexuality which borders on the masochistic, as Jean-Paul aggressively scratches Marianne’s back. Perhaps a portent of things to come occurs when he provides evidence of his misogyny: throwing her into the pool before rudely spitting water at her.

It’s a very handsome movie. Not only are the stars beautiful, but the design of the piece has focused specifically on bright, clean blocks of colour. The blue of the pool, the verdant green countryside and the vividly coloured towels are loud and vibrant – an almost hyper-real palate.

Into the middle of this beauty comes Harry (Maurice Ronet), a record producer and former lover of Marianne. He brings with him Penelope (Jane Birkin), his rather sullen teenage daughter. It rapidly becomes clear that their presence is set to upset the equilibrium – not least when it’s made apparent that Marianne and Harry have been lovers in the past. Jean-Paul’s determination to gain a measure of revenge for this is hinted at very early, as he aggressively ascertains Penelope’s age – his intentions are clearly not noble.

Birkin is clearly too old to be playing an 18-year-old girl, and her performance reflects that fact. She tries far too hard to appear carefree and youthful, skipping around looking quite ridiculous. It’s actually quite jarring – the film is initially very sexually charged, and she undermines this. For the purposes of the plot, it would hardly have mattered if the character had been older – or if Deray had ordered Birkin to rein in her unsubtle performance. As it is, Jean-Paul’s early sexual aggression and Marianne’s submission remain largely unexplored after Penelope’s entrance – arguably the film’s most interesting aspect is abandoned.

One of the key flaws with the film is that Jean-Paul finds Penelope attractive at all. It’s evident from what’s shown on-screen initially that he and Marianne have an extremely sexual relationship – and she’s a very beautiful woman. Penelope is portrayed very clearly as a naive child, and is not nearly as sensual or fanciable as Marianne. Despite the power struggle being waged between the three adults, it’s difficult to believe that even someone as reactive and masochistic as Jean-Paul could obtain any pleasure from such a relationship.

When the jealousies and rivalries finally boil over, a murder takes place. But it’s not a convincing one. Some really half-hearted violence is followed by a protracted episode in the titular swimming pool, which is indecisive, unthreatening and unexciting. The build up to this incident lacks any passion, and there’s no real catalyst for it. But for the tragic outcome, it’s actually quite comedic – surely not the effect Deray was aiming for.

The death doesn’t actually occur until 80 minutes into the movie, which highlights another of the production’s flaws: it would be perfectly possible to trim thirty minutes from the running time of La Piscine without having any detrimental effect. Far too many scenes do too little to develop the plot or relationships. Obviously, nobody wants to see movies which concentrate wholly on plot rather than character, but here the balance is wrong – especially given how shallow some of the characters are. And after spending so long meandering to the death scene, the pace doesn’t pick up afterwards. Instead, a plodding investigation takes place, which is, quite frankly, boring.

La Piscine is a sumptuous film to look at: the cinematography is impressive and the cast beautiful. Sadly, the storyline is thin – and stretched even thinner over the two hour running time. With little action, director Deray relies on his cast of characters to sustain the audience’s interest, but beneath the surface beauty they are pretty uninteresting, like La Piscine itself.

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