Older movies have a different style to them, a different means of editing and at times, a different kind of acting, which can make them seem very strange for modern viewers. But they also tend to be more focused on story and character, with perhaps more in common with plays than today’s cinema. La Piscine, Jacques Deray’s 1969 sensual summery swim-flick which has been rereleased this winter, is a good example of this old-fashioned film making – slow, well-paced with a focus on thought not action – but can such a film hold the attention of a modern audience?The film introduces us to Jean-Paul and Marianne (Alain Delon and Romy Schneider), an over-sexed, hedonistic couple who are spending a summer together at a sun-drenched villa on the French Riviera. The two spend most of their time in the pool, but when not swimming, tend to be sleeping or having sex. Though ennui threatens to take over their August, the two are generally happy, lost in a sunny, sexy bliss.
Then Harry shows up. A friend from the past, it soon becomes clear to Jean-Paul that Harry and Marianne have some sort of history together, and things between the couple start to become very tense. Worse still for Jean-Paul, he may be attracted to Harry’s jail-bail, eighteen year old daughter Penelope, an odd girl who seems to know more than she lets on. The foursome slowly become entangled in a mess of conflicting relationships – the consequences of which may prove fatal.Straight away, it’s clear that the cinematography of La Piscine is impressive. Deray drenches this film in sunlight and portrays a wonderfully summery vista – it’s all very sexy, very warm; Deray’s Riviera is a place to get lost in. The lead characters spend most of the film in beautiful 60s clothing or topless – the money shots tantalisingly hidden just behind scenery – which provides a lot of simmering sex appeal. The pool hangs in the centre of the film, shimmering, and stands as the film’s central image – this is the pit to plunge into and get lost in, and as such, most of the movie’s important dramatic action takes place around water. The film is wonderful to watch on a purely visual level. Deray keeps everything still and lets all of his scenes play out with minimal camera tricks or edits, which allows every event to slowly sink in and gives his actors a chance to breathe. The drama comes naturally from such restrained scenes and feels very real – everything is downplayed, realistic, and very tense. Deray keeps a lot unsaid and lets his actors do the work – the sexual and violent tension between everyone becoming surprisingly intense as the film progresses. La Piscine is utterly absorbing. Take the dinner scene late in the film, in which all of the characters know about all of their respective affairs but don’t actually mention them – instead they take about the Chinese food they’re eating and the beach they’ve visited – yet the tension between them is unbearable and painful to watch. This is a film which plays on the negative, on the empty space of what’s unsaid, and it’s nice to see a director confident enough to do this. It’s impossible to imagine studio executives letting this fly today. The film doesn’t rush and Deray takes his time, racking up the sexual tension until everything boils over in the dramatic climax.If there was a criticism to be made of this style, it’s that the dramatic climax is a long time coming. For a film about ennui and bored, over-sexed characters who spend most of their time hungover or lying in bed, it captures their languor a little bit too well. Essentially, watching very bored characters be bored can be a bit boring. The slow, steady pace of the film may be off putting to modern audiences who are used to quicker cuts and more action. If anything the film is slightly overlong – the climax takes just a bit too much time to come round and then the movie hangs on for slightly too long afterwards. But for the most part La Piscine holds the attention, and if the audience allow themselves to dive in completely, they’ll find themselves immersed in a consuming, tense movie.For how wonderfully tense the film is, and how well directed, it would all mean nothing if the cast weren’t on top form. Thankfully, everyone shines in La Piscine. With such a small cast, the film comes across as a stage play, with everyone giving a detailed, rich performance. Maurice Ronet works as the confident womanising Harry who comes across as unlikable in all the right ways. Jane Birkin as his daughter Penelope is perhaps even stronger – she manages to walk the difficult balance between childish and sexy – never being one without the other, which keeps her young age, and the taboo nature of her character, constantly in the audience’s mind. Better yet, as the film progresses and we learn more about her character, it becomes clear that Penelope is a lot smarter than she lets on. It’s an impressive performance from a young actress.
The two leads are stronger still – Schneider’s Marianne is all confidence and sex appeal at the start of the movie, looking stunningly 60’s in a her wonderful dresses with a cigarette in her hand, but the character becomes more complex as the film progresses, at times the mother and protector of Jean-Paul, we get the sense that she’s desperate to be this strong, on top of everything woman, when at times it’s clear she might just want to be loved. It’s a complex, conflicting role and Schneider pulls it off fantastically. The best performance by far, however, is Delon as Jean-Paul. He manages to be sexy and smooth at times, yet also young and scared too, and later, furious and violent. It’s a performance which inspires fond memories of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, and Delon steals the film. Again, in keeping with the style of La Piscine, it’s a role which plays on the negative space, on what’s not said, and Delon deliberately keeps elements of his character from the audience, which makes him even more interesting. It’s great to see a movie which relies so much on the strength of its cast; rarely do you see this in modern cinema.La Piscine, then, is a tense character study, wonderfully directed and with brilliantly detailed performances from its cast. It does at times have problems with its pacing – coming across as a little slow, but for the most part is utterly absorbing. Proof that they don’t make movies quite like they used to. Perhaps they should. La Piscine is worth sinking into.