“You have to change your own desires, not the order of the world.”

– Maurice Ronet to Alain Delon, La piscine

There are the reasons why we love movies – and then there are the ones that we admit to. Few serious “cinephiles”, perhaps, would confess that they love watching impossibly glamorous people commit acts of absurdly stylish depravity. Such a statement, uttered aloud, could downgrade the speaker from a “cinephile” to a mere “fan” – one who might lounge on the sofa with a bottle of Babycham and a Dynasty box set. Very occasionally, however, we see a film so awkwardly yet compulsively enjoyable that it forces the highbrow viewer to own up: one that takes his or her notion of a Guilty Pleasure and elevates it to the status of High Art.

Few films pull off this trick as consummately as La piscine. Set in a to-die-for villa in the verdant hills overlooking Saint-Tropez, this icily elegant pas de quatre involves four of the most outrageously photogenic actors to ever appear on screen. Alain Delon plays a failed writer (and reformed alcoholic), Jean-Paul, who now earns a living in advertising. Marianne (Romy Schneider) is his mistress, a one-time journalist who neglects her career for love. Intruding on their Côte d’Azur idyll is his best friend (and her former lover) a successful jazz composer (Harry) played by Maurice Ronet. He brings along Penelope (Jane Birkin) as his pulchritudinous teenage daughter, born of an indiscretion in his youth. Nothing that happens from here on is a surprise, exactly. We sit and revel in the glamour of it all, waiting for those hormonal and homicidal impulses to boil over – as, of course, they do.

On one level, the film is an unapologetic star vehicle for Delon and Schneider, his former girlfriend in his off-screen life. They had reigned 10 years previously as “the sweethearts of Europe”, co-starring in Christine (Pierre Gaspard-Huit, 1958) and then onstage in Paris in Luchino Visconti’s fabled 1961 production of John Ford’s play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Their liaison had been a stormy one, and Schneider only stepped into this new role after Jeanne Moreau turned it down. Birkin had hit the headlines more recently, as the sweet English girl corrupted by bad-boy French musician Serge Gainsbourg. Together they had sung the raunchy anthem “Je t’aime… moi non plus”, a song whose risqué lyrics she seemed barely to understand. So even before a foot of film was shot, La piscine had the glow of ready-made box office gold.

Nonetheless, it’s an odd film to come out of France in the wake of May ’68. Disaffected youth crops up briefly in the form of a gawky red-haired lad, who makes a feeble play for Birkin. The proletariat, so far as we can see, consists of a jolly and rotund housekeeper, who placidly clears away the bottles after an impromptu all-night party. The thrillers directed by Claude Chabrol around this time (notably Les biches [1968] and La femme infidèle [1969]) pour venomous scorn on their bourgeois characters and the callous moral vacuum they inhabit (if only because their taste in interior décor is so relentlessly hideous). Yet La piscine – which is sexier, more stylish and more suspenseful than anything by Chabrol – seems weirdly uncritical of its murderous and self-satisfied bo-bos.

Perhaps that is one reason why Jacques Deray, whose first big success this was, is a neglected filmmaker even in his native France. Dismissed by critics as “more of a technician than an auteur(1), he was adopted (fatally, as it turned out) by Delon as his house director. In their eight subsequent films together – mainly polars or crime thrillers, and including such massive hits as Borsalino (1970) and Flic Story (1975) – Deray would become little more than a major domo to the megalomania of his aging star. Yet Deray and his collaborators’ work on La piscine has been compared – in “the perfection of its editing, the fluidity of its camerawork [and] its precise direction of actors” (2) – with the classics of Hollywood film noir, most notably Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). I would personally choose Deray’s film over Preminger’s, which asks us to believe the flamboyantly camp Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) lusts after the voluptuous Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). The libidos on show in La piscine are not merely believable, but downright palpable.

I might even go one step further, and say this film’s very refusal of overt political content is, in itself, a hugely political act. No less a theorist that Susan Hayward has analysed the “swimming pool” of the title (in and around which most of the action takes place) as emblematic of la chose américaine, an object that signified the capitulation of post-World War II France to capitalist consumerism founded on the American model:

In terms of style, American fetish objects (la chose américaine) such as swimming pools and yachts are simultaneously the object of desire and the scene of the crime. Within this simultaneousness a double irony prevails, an ironising of the subject’s desire for the object is joined with an ironising of the object of desire itself. To want it leads to death, the object itself becomes the container/instrument of death. (3)

Such an analysis may hold true for an earlier Delon/Ronet vehicle, Plein soleil (Purple Noon, René Clément, 1960) – in which Schneider makes a cameo appearance – where both characters come to grief because of poor boy Delon’s longing for rich boy Ronet’s yacht (and, indeed, his lifestyle in general). Yet the characters in La piscine seem to take their swimming pool entirely for granted. They do not seem to long for anything apart from sex, or alcohol, or revenge, or oblivion, or each other. They swim in the pool, make love in the pool, commit murder in the pool – as if convinced this lavish lieu du crime is no more than they are due.

The swimming pool, like the characters and the ménage à quatre they inhabit, is a world wholly contained within itself. Self-referential and self-indulgent, it excludes the possibility of any life (or death) beyond its own narrow but sparkling blue confines. In the very first shot, we see Delon luxuriating beside it, his exquisite bronze body soaked in Mediterranean sun. In the distance – a darker yet more authentic, more believable shade of blue – we glimpse the Mediterranean Sea. Why, we have to wonder (subconsciously, at least), do characters who already live in a natural paradise feel the urge – nay, the need – to inhabit an artificial one?

The improbably wide-eyed Birkin, as the one character with a few remnants of innocence, refuses to bathe in the pool but says she loves to swim in the sea. (She does so, in fact, the night she is deflowered by Delon.) For her hyper-sophisticated elders, in contrast, only the swimming pool will do. Ronet and Delon swim a race in it, playing out a rivalry that will finally end in violent death. Schneider and Delon embrace in it, simultaneously locking mouths and pushing one another beneath the water, until we in the audience fear they are about to drown.

Far from ignoring the reality of France in the aftermath of May ’68, La piscine reflects it in its cruellest and most merciless form. The country that would emerge in the ’70s (and persist, with variations, through the presidencies of Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy) was one not of the barricades but of Club Méditeranée, an ethos less of Marianne than of Emmanuelle (Just Jaeckin, 1974). Of course, France did no more than follow the drift of other countries in the West – and in a manner considerably more civilised and less brutal than most. If the jaded pool-side voluptuaries of La piscine feel closer to us now than the bourgeois caricatures of Chabrol (not to mention the young Maoist rebels of Godard) that may not be wholly our imagination. It may just be that they are.

Endnotes

  1. Michel Sineux, Dictionnaire du cinéma A-K, ed. Jean-Loup Passek, Larousse, Paris, 1995, p. 608. Translation from French by the author.
  2. Sineux, p. 609.
  3. Susan Hayward, French National Cinema, Routledge, London and New York, 1993, p. 275.

La piscine/The Swimming Pool (1969 France/Italy 122 mins)

Prod Co: Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie/Tritone Film Prod: René Pignères, Gérard Beytout Dir: Jacques Deray Scr: Jean-Emmanuel Conil, adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière and Jacques Deray Phot: Jean-Jacques Tarbes Ed: Paul Cayatte Prod Des: Paul Laffargue Mus: Michel Legrand

Cast: Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, Jane Birkin, Paul Crauchet, Steve Eckhardt

About The Author

David Melville teaches Film Studies and Literature for the University of Edinburgh Centre for Open Learning. He has a special interest in melodrama, fantasy fiction and the aesthetics of dreams.