Deep End Review

A skimming of the plot will follow but it seems appropriate to begin a review of Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End with a little spoiler-free background independent of what occurs in the film. The Polish director (who possibly has the most intimidating IMDb profile picture of anyone I've yet come across) came to Deep End after making a handful of shorts and features in his native country, including co-writing Knife in the Water with pal Roman Polanski. He also found time to direct Jean-Pierre Léaud in Le départ, a 1967 picture made in Belgium that is said to share some commonalities with Deep End. Disappointed with his first try at making an English language movie, The Adventures of Gerard, Skolimowski retreated to his London flat and began work on a story conceived initially from a little episode he'd read about in Poland that involved a diamond getting lost in the snow. A pair of his countrymen, Jerzy Gruza and Boleslaw Sulik, joined Skolimowski in expanding this idea into a workable screenplay, which was then given support by producer Judd Bernard, an American. Most of the filming took place in spring of 1970 in Munich, with nearly all of the supporting roles being cast with Germans. Where Munich locations wouldn't believably pass as British, a few days of the production were reserved for filming in London.

In contrast to frequent attempts made in this release and elsewhere to frame Deep End in the context of its time and place of so-called "swinging London," I'd instead stress how removed the film seems from at least the version of that era seen in movies, particularly those so far released in the BFI's Flipside strand. Skolimowski, perhaps because he was an outsider to the scene, created a film that remains simultaneously on the fringes of any actual setting and also identifiably British on a few levels. There are no cuts to London landmarks or anything of the sort. You'd be forgiven, particularly if English isn't your primary language, for viewing the film as a sort of fantastic and macabre tale of obsession made universal by its almost blurring of specific locations. The foreign elements, including the Munich-set production, Skolimowski and his Polish co-writers, and German director of photography Charly Steinberger, filter the film through a distinctly non-British perspective that is far less any sort of statement or reaction to its country of origin than a happy, cross-cultural medley massaged to resemble fantasy over reality. The result is a unique creation, buoyed by mood and atmosphere but never cheaply calling attention to such via sound or vision.

The British element presumably attaches most with the two lead actors. John Moulder-Brown plays Mike, a shy, soft-spoken fifteen-year-old just given his first job as an attendant at a London public bath. His flame-haired, slightly older co-worker Susan is played by Jane Asher, who was once the girlfriend of Paul McCartney. Furthering the Englishness of the film is ancient sexpot Diana Dors (already an artifact at 38), who plays Mike's first female opportunity in the bath. Susan had already told him that ladies of a certain age would take well to a polite young boy like himself, with good tips to come for humoring them. Still, Mike is rather scarred by this bizarre encounter, which introduces the underlying sexual current so strongly present throughout Deep End. It's also an opening of sorts into the ruinous way Susan deals with Mike. What occurs between the two of them forms the psychological and behavioral crux of the film. Those who've not yet had the occasion to see Deep End might prefer to return later to this review, after watching the picture, as some discussion of specific plot details will now commence.

Potentially the most interesting element in a film that is absolutely brimming with borderline toxic fascination is how Skolimowski portrays the sexuality of Mike's obsession with Susan. The film takes place over only a single week, beginning on a Monday as Mike is hired and starts his job at the public bath. He's a teenage boy and a virgin so the immediate interest in Susan is expected. The speed and degree of his attachment is what becomes especially involving. Also, the way Skolimowski allows this all to build is a master stroke of tension in a film that might not immediately seem so tightly wound. The seeds are planted, one after the other and beginning in earnest when Susan is seen teasing Mike as he confesses not having ever been with a girl. There's a public health poster of a pregnant man which she tears the head off of and lays on Mike in a flirtatious sequence also underscored with a fair amount of (seemingly innocent) sexuality. This scene follows Susan peeking through a window at Mike, who's seen putting on dry clothes after having been bounced into the pool. The implication is that she's toying with him, perhaps not without a smidgen of interest but certainly absent any appreciation for the consequences.

Things turn a bit more serious when, after learning that Susan is engaged to be married, Mike follows her and her fiance to, of all places, an adult movie theater. The teasing here turns almost dangerous. Mike sits an aisle behind and gropes Susan, seemingly to her quizzical amusement since she offers him a long kiss after having slapped him and made a small scene. The next night, with excerpts from Can's epic "Mother Sky" playing on the soundtrack, Skolimowski paints London after dark as an incredibly seedy place full of shady characters looking to profit from sex. That's what sells in Soho apparently. Mike rather embarrassingly visits an exclusive club that caters to its members-only clientele with rooms for sex. Barkers outside strip clubs promise pretty ladies who take it all off and a prostitute with a broken leg proves to be only a couple of doorways from the sidewalk. The level of distortion and disorientation shown here is extraordinary. Mike cannot handle the thought of Susan being sexually involved with others. His impulses are not overtly violent but his behavior could nonetheless hardly be any more obsessive. He seems to especially crack at the idea of Susan leading an improbable double life as Angelique, a model or sex industry worker of some sort whose cutout he pilfers from the outside of a club.

This nocturnal sequence is a huge turning point in the film, where anything that might have been lurking in Mike's mind is now being expressed without the ability to retreat. The way it's all portrayed, too, including an especially heightened example of the handheld camera in use throughout, is one of the high points in how Skolimowski depicts London from what is akin to a tourist's perspective. The large city feels ready to open its wide jaws at any point and swallow the misguided young boy running around with a cutout of a topless woman. It's here, too, where Skolimowski inserts maybe his most bizarre attempts at humor, chiefly in the form of Mike's absurd and frequent trips to a hot dog stand run by a polite, bowing Asian man (played by Bert Kwouk, best known for his role as Cato in the Pink Panther films). Deep End has a wicked and dark streak of blacker than night comedy throughout, but the hot dog binge is probably its most overt showing, in addition to being a potential tipping point in realizing that the film is no longer playing fair. From here on, logic and all semblances of convention are officially removed. What's left is a disturbing and brilliant exercise in categorical defiance. The film is given over to Mike's impulses, fears and desires.


The Disc(s)

Deep End

is a bright feather in the cap of the BFI, and particularly its Flipside strand. It comes to the UK in a Dual Format release containing both dual-layered Blu-ray and standard definition discs. Non-Europeans can enjoy the show too, as the Blu-ray is not region-locked.

A limited edition variety is also being released and it contains a special third disc. This DVD includes footage of an onstage interview conducted with the film's stars Jane Asher and John Moulder-Brown that is said to run approximately 25 minutes. Additionally, it has the 2011 reissue trailer for the picture. This version is strictly limited to 1,000 units.

Watching this new HD master of Deep End that was restored by Bavaria Media, the initial thing that most stands out is how striking the colors look. This is especially notable here because Skolimowski uses color to such great effect. In the first half of the film, we see Susan wearing orange shirts on two separate days and also using an orange towel. The darker second half of the movie seems to split the components of orange in half, at times emphasizing the benign yellow half on things like her raincoat while saving red for more ominous occasions. Aquas and greens are also represented well, and look quite nice on the dual-layered BD.

An aspect ratio of 1.85:1 has been used for this transfer, which originates from a 2K resolution scan and restoration of a 35mm interpositive. Further digital restoration was used, and the result is a very clean watch absent any damage worth mentioning. Visible grain can still be seen at times, though not consistently throughout the film. At times more grain is noticeable. It doesn't look quite as satisfyingly film-like from start to finish as other BFI transfers I've seen. Those pesky screen captures everyone always spends too much energy poring over would potentially emphasize grain in places where it's far less obvious in motion. Since the points of comparison existing prior to this restoration are mainly television recordings and old VHS tapes sourced from inferior materials, most of those waiting for the Blu-ray are likely to be overjoyed by what the BFI has done here.

Audio comes in an English PCM mono track (48k/24-bit on the Blu-ray). It was restored from the original main mix on 17.5 mm magnetic film. The two-channel track sounds pleasantly full and clean. Dialogue was obviously dubbed in later, owing to the numerous German actors playing English, and the synchronization often doesn't match exactly, though you do adjust after not too long. Moulder-Brown's line deliveries are sometimes a little mumbled or garbled, but this fits with his character and is probably intentional. The music, including Cat Stevens' booming version of "But I Might Die Tonight," a song reworked and later included on Tea for the Tillerman, adds a perfect layer to the film and sounds very good indeed here. Overall, this is a strong, consistent listen where both dialogue and music come through clearly and without issue. Optional English subtitles are also included for the hearing impaired. They are white in color.

The main attraction in the special features section is a feature-length look at the making of Deep End. Named after the film's working title Starting Out, this new documentary (78:05) includes interviews with stars Moulder-Brown and Asher (reunited for the first time here since the production), writer/director Jerzy Skolimowski, cinematographer Charly Steinberger, editor Barrie Vince, production designer Anthony Pratt, and actor/fisherman Christopher Sandford. The piece is fairly comprehensive without disturbing any of the magic of the film or its ambiguities. It would be nice if all great movies had such a companion, where the principals revisited it forty years after the fact.

Bavaria Media and Robert Fischer's Fiction Factory, who put together the making-of documentary, also made a deleted scenes featurette (12:45). Since none of the excised sequences have survived, Skolimowski, Vince and Pratt provide details from the script and their memories of what was removed. There are two full scenes, a few shots in another that were taken out, and an alternate ending that are discussed.

The 1976 short film "Careless Love" (10:08) is a weird, basically one-note student movie that was directed by Francine Winham and stars Jane Asher. It's in 1.33:1 and, even though it's in HD on the Blu-ray, is in rough condition, with ample scratches. The lengthy original theatrical trailer (4:26) for Deep End is here in HD and 1.33:1.

As is standard for the BFI, an attractive booklet can be found inside the case with the discs. It runs for 28 pages. Written material includes an essay by David Thompson that goes for parts of five pages. It's followed by three pages of thoughts by Yvonne Tasker about sex, cinema and gender in Britain during the late '60s and early '70s. A single page is devoted to the use of the Can song "Mother Sky" in the film. Ewa Mazierska contributes a three-page biography of director Jerzy Skolimowski. Two pages on the short film "Careless Love" are written by its director Francine Winham. Credits and stills complement the various essays. This isn't one of the BFI's more helpful or insightful efforts, especially since the writings opt to mostly avoid any meaningful critical analysis of the film, but the digital extras more than make up for any shortcomings in this instance.

Final Thoughts

To return again to non-spoiler praise for Deep End, I really have to express how utterly enchanted and affected I was by this film. It stuck to my gut like, to make a crude comparison, some unholy blending of Hitchcock, Polanski, Roeg, Ashby's Harold and Maude and Wes Anderson's Rushmore. But still utterly unique and able to stand on its own without an expiration date. That the film has remained so difficult to see for years since its release seems like an unfortunate way to quash something that deserves to be more than simply a cult piece. The situation is happily being rectified now. Deep End can and should be celebrated as a hypnotic dream of a picture. It's another Vertigo in its own way, with similar things to say but said far differently.


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