Blu-ray Review: Criterion Dives Into LA PISCINE
Alain Delon, Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin star in a sexy French slow-burn drama.
In late 1960s France, in the exact moment when the nouvelle vague wasn’t so new anymore but the deliberate vapidity of cinéma du look had not yet entered the frame, there was a retreat. A retreat back to glamour, back to earnest celebrity. A retreat back to pure sex appeal, to opulent escapism. To glossiness, to the material.
Anyone with an aversion to impossibly beautiful people lounging about in sunlight and swimwear should make a point of avoiding said retreat, director Jacques Deray’s La piscine (The Swimming Pool). But then, it would be their loss. Of course, very few such individuals exist, so an audience for La piscine will always exist, and far bigger than one may suspect. Inspired by David Hockney’s famed 1967 painting “A Bigger Splash” and an inspiration for Luca Guadagnino’s 2016 pseudo remake, A Bigger Splash and François Ozon’s 2003 Swimming Pool, La piscine indeed made quite a splash of its own.
Most of the film is tightly confined to a majestic French Riviera getaway, complete with the titular swimming pool. Between the perfect blue of the water and the smoldering, quietly overt sexuality of the cast, it’s as though the characters are unknowingly trapped in a chic perfume ad. The question is aroused: Is such surface-level advertising really so bad...? Though nothing in particular is for sale, Deray sure makes us want to buy it.
For a pool that ripples with such promise of perpetual refreshment, the water gets awfully hot. Make no mistake, this inground custom indulgence is the true star of the film -- though eyes cannot be averted from headliners Alain Delon (then supernova-hot on the international scene), Romy Schneider (a well-earned comeback vehicle for her), and a young Jane Birkin (radiating an undeniable blank sexiness). Criterion, in presenting this restored 4K digital transfer, does warm, sensual justice to every facet of the careful visuals. The Blu-ray’s uncompressed monaural soundtrack brilliantly accommodates Michel Legrand’s hauntingly light score.
Delon and Schneider, famously an item and then not an item, re-couple for this dark getaway. They play worldly lovers Jean-Paul and Marianne, smolderingly non-verbal in their record-industry affluence and semi-Bohemianism. Their isolation is cut short by a visit fromra past acquaintance -- both professionally and personal -- Harry Lannier (Maurice Ronet) and his eighteen-year-old daughter, Penelope (Birkin). Unspoken tensions broil between every possible pairing, from the established to the abandoned; from the forbidden to the insidious.
The perpetual sunlight on their secluded getaway amid the Côte d'Azur is a trenchant thing; as ordered but fully lacking any illumination. Two years in, the once-harmonious relationship of Jean-Paul and Marianne is starting to skip. The presence of Harry, who we learn is Marianne’s former lover, unearths no shortage of baggage. Penelope, blank but obviously aware, dithers around in various cute little outfits, proving to be quite the distraction for Jean-Paul.
Deray expertly cultivates a slow-burn for all time, a seductive summer that gives way to a singe. It’s the rare narrative in which we’re led into the film’s enticing waters at the zero-entry point, only to realize we’ve drifted helplessly into the deep end.
When it comes to sexy thrillers, La piscine splits the difference almost exactly in half: there’s the first half “sexy”, and the second half “thriller”. Though the story throws a major switch around the one-hour point of this nearly two-hour film, the first-half lull is such that it we don’t necessarily see it coming. Not to the degree that it does.
Indeed, while first watching La piscine, it might feel a bit... adrift. While not waterlogged or soggy by any measure, the characters’ measured blasé natures permeate the narrative to such degrees that it seems nothing is happening for the longest time. The genius of it is that things very much are happening. La piscine is obtuse-Hitchcockian psychological French broil, more-so than even much of Chabrol. Some inner grime, it turns out, cannot be washed away.
Besides the beautiful presentation, there is also a fine array of bonus features to be had. They range from vintage (an assortment of archival interviews and newsreels pertaining to the film) to the recently created. (Most prominently, Fifty Years Later, a 2019 documentary by Agnès Vincent-Deray featuring surviving cast and crew members reflecting on La piscine).
Also new and quite welcome among the extras is an interview with film scholar Nick Rees-Roberts on the significance of the film’s sensual aesthetics. Trailers and a very brief alternate ending round out the easy-to-digest yet fulfilling batch of features. To top it off, Criterion has included the English language version of the film, comprised of different takes shot at the same time as the French version. The essay insert is by film critic Jessica Kiang.
Despite the smoldering cover photo of Delon and Schneider making love by the pool, it’s important to note that La piscine is not a sexually explicit movie by any means. Upon its U.S. release, it warranted a GP rating (the early MPAA rating equivalent of PG, far predating the advent of PG-13 circa 1985). Though perpetually sexual in vibe and theme, nudity is scant and physical intimacy is all the more fleeting. The water’s temperature may’ve been just cold enough to refresh, but clearly not so frigid as to temper passions... both healthy and deathly.
The film will be available from The Criterion Collection on July 20, 2021.
The Swimming Pool
- Jacques Deray
- Jean-Claude Carrière (adaptation)
- Jacques Deray (adaptation)
- Alain Page (story)
- Alain Delon
- Romy Schneider
- Maurice Ronet
- Jane Birkin