Friday, November 6, 2015

La Piscine (1969)

The tranquility of an idyllic, romantic summer getaway to a plush French villa is disturbed for a handsome couple, when an old friend and his teenage daughter unexpectedly join the party. The fragility of multiple bonds lies exposed with the arrival of this strange pair of guests in this complex psychological drama surrounding mysterious relationships.

In "La Piscine" aka "The Swimming Pool" (1969), written and directed by Jacques Deray, Jean-Paul (Alain Delon), a failed writer with supposed emotional problems takes a vacation with his beautiful girlfriend from over two years, Marianne (Romy Schneider). Both of them spend most of their time either taking lazy sunbaths or canoodling by the large swimming pool in the property when they aren't taking a dip in it.

Enter old friend Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his attractive 18-year old daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin), and suddenly, there are ripples in an otherwise calm atmosphere, as seemingly healthy, strong bonds begin to show cracks following some startling revelations about all four involved.

"La Piscine" unfolds with a languorous pace, its lazy mood mirroring the leisurely sun-soaked holiday of Jean-Paul and Marianne. The plot and the narrative is mostly minimal, with almost nothing happening for most of the first half hour, but we do get to have a good glimpse of some gorgeous looking people spending their time around the luxurious property. During this time, we are given the chance to soak in in the relaxed environment and observe the body language of the four primary characters. Their interactions seem to hint at a lot more, a whole lot different than what initially meets the eye.

A slow-burning tension mounts gradually as we notice those furtive glances and some visible discomfort. In what seems to be a passionate romance between the lead couple, there suddenly appears to be a strange, uncomfortable distance of sort. The palpable emotional wall between the father, Harry and his daughter Penelope suggest that this is not your ordinary, healthy father-daughter pair, and there is something definitely out of place.

Certain character actions coerce you to form your own questions and formulate theories. For instance, why did Marianne initially refuse to tell Jean-Paul whose call it was when Harry phoned? Could there be something between Marianne and Harry or was she just teasing him? What is the meaning of Penelope's overall awkwardness around the others? Or is she just plain bored among all the older people? Why is Jean-Paul so interested in her age, unabashedly even asking it, despite her father being around?

The dialog is mostly restrained, and there are no explicit dramatic exchanges except in one vital scene. The nature of the complex relationships portrayed is revealed piece by piece, and with a strange, unexpected nonchalance, the kind of revelation that you may even miss if you blink. There is a dysfunction alright, but there is an air of ambiguity as well, even when exposing it to the viewer. Certain aspects of the past are divulged as subtle twists, making you rewind and think back to an interaction, trying to comprehend an exchange, while in other cases it seems to make sense and fall into place.

The tactful handling of these sequences and the steady control exercised here is remarkable indeed. Deray creates an unsettling atmosphere of understated suspense, and we realize that beneath all the glamour and the romance, something very sinister is brewing, only we are unsure where it is all headed. It almost seems like an unusual calm before a storm, like a dormant volcano waiting to erupt, but without a clear knowledge of how and when such an event may occur.

Of course, the third act springs a surprise of shocking proportions, and even this shock is brought upon rather gently, keeping in tune with the languid tone of the film. The film would've been just as effective as an elegantly mounted sensual psychological drama, even without the thriller element introduced in the third act, sans which it would've still retained all its tense, suspenseful qualities.

"La Piscine" is exquisitely filmed and most of the action is confined to the compound walls of the villa and around the swimming pool. This titular swimming pool, serves as the symbol of calm, pleasant waters turned into a deadly vortex that would change lives forever. With a setup and characters like those depicted, not surprisingly, comes the exploration of an existential ennui, a trope already mastered by the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni.

With talents like Jean-Claude Carrière, Maurice Ronet, Alain Delon and the lovely Romy Schneider on board, Jacques Deray certainly delivers an engaging drama that goes far beyond being a mere showcase of two handsome men sipping scotch and two gorgeous ladies sunbathing.

Score: 9/10

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