Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Short Take: Deep End

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Director Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) turns the sexual coming-of-age comedy inside out. It's a potent blend of psychodrama, incisive social detail, and poetic filmmaking. A working-class London teenager (John Moulder-Brown) takes his first job as an attendant in a seedy city bathhouse, where he quickly becomes infatuated with a pretty co-worker a few years his senior (Jane Asher). The co-worker is a promiscuous tease. She’s engaged, but she is also having an affair with the bathhouse swim teacher, and she has no compunction about playing with the teenager’s feelings for her. Reserved and sexually uptight, he becomes obsessive and begins to stalk her, with ultimately tragic results. Skolimowski takes the viewer inside the boy’s psyche with a striking array of sexually charged poetic visuals. The green walls of the bathhouse become red as his obsession with his coworker intensifies, and its swimming pool becomes both the catalyst and setting of his fantasies. An extended sequence in which he follows the coworker through Soho’s nightlife makes the leap from the poetic into the hallucinatory. Moulder-Brown’s performance is engaging and unstudied even in his character's most disturbed moments. Asher is at least as impressive: the tease’s good-humored, spontaneous charm and her often vicious whimsy feel as if they’re all of a piece. The two do a fine job of conveying the romantic-comedy currents necessary to make the film’s irony work. But Skolimowski’s crowning achievement is his ability to ground everything in the story’s social milieu. The film is very much a portrait of the sleazy side of “Swinging London,” and it subtly dramatizes how the libertine environment--the open sexuality, the porn theaters, the bathhouse's debauched atmosphere, etc.--can abet the perversion of adolescent infatuation into madness. The screenplay is credited to Skolimowski, J. Gruza, and B. Sulik. The picture has been notoriously difficult to see in the 40 years since its release, and is only now coming back into view.

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