La Piscine Review
The name Jacques Deray most likely means little these days. But for four decades he was amongst France’s most commercially successful directors. Unaffiliated with the nouvelle vague, or any other movements, he made his debut in 1960 with Le Gigolo. Starring Alida Valli and Jean-Claude Brialy, this was a black and white romantic drama that gradually encroached onto thriller territory as the running time ticked by. Indeed, it was this genre that would likewise engulf Deray’s entire filmography, his subsequent work being a mixture of crime dramas, gangster flicks, glossy heist capers and psychological thrillers. Most notable were the many collaborations with Alain Delon, amongst them Borsalino from 1970 and its 1974 sequel Borsalino & Co., 1977’s Le Gang and this particular title, La Piscine, made in 1969. Unsurprisingly it’s only the second Deray film to reach the UK DVD market, following Flic Story, a tightly constructed crime melodrama from 1975 that once again cast Delon, here playing a cop opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant’s villain.
Yet whilst Flic Story (or indeed the Borsalino films and Le Gang) went for conventional genre thrills, La Piscine is somewhat different. Eschewing the urban locales of these later movies for the sun-kissed environs of an isolated house in Saint Tropez, it unfolds at a far more languid pace than these tougher, more immediately crowd-pleasing works. The house is occupied by the holidaying couple played by Romy Schneider and Alain Delon. She’s a journalist, he’s a writer, and soon they’re joined by their record producer friend (played by Maurice Ronet, Delon’s co-star from Plein soleil) and his teenaged daughter (Jane Birkin). Over the course of a few days in the oppressive heat - the swimming pool of the title is in almost permanent use by the quartet - old emotions are rekindled and some new ones formed. Birkin cannot help but attract the attentions of Delon, whilst Schneider and Ronet - former lovers - appear to be sparking up a relationship once more. What follows unavoidably involves both heated passions and indeed heated emotions…
As with many of his films Deray also wrote the screenplay for La Piscine. He collaborated with Jean-Claude Carrière, best known for his work with Buñuel (Belle de jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, etc.) though his cv reads like an arthouse cinema who’s who - everyone from Nagisa Oshima to Jean-Luc Godard finds a spot or two - and still has room for tantalisingly unexpected one-offs (a French television adaptation of Harold and Maude, for example). Given the psychological thriller set-up of La Piscine it is perhaps unavoidable that the influence of Carrière would be heavily felt. After all this isn’t really Deray’s territory; his is the world of gunfights on the city streets not emotional warfare akin to the collaborations of Harold Pinter and Joseph Losey. (Accident, say, would be a far more appropriate comparison point that Deray’s own films.) Yet those expecting that slightly uncanny sensation that comes with so many of Carrière’s screenplays are likely to come away disappointed. The potential is certainly there, but it is never quite allowed to blossom. The end result is seemingly more concerned with gloss: surface details taking a precedent over prodding into the hidden depths.
To an extent such an approach is perfectly understanding. If you’re filming in Saint Tropez during the summer and you have the bodies of Delon, Schneider and Birkin at your disposal, then of course it’s difficult not to be concerned with these more immediate appeals. Indeed, the colour photography of Jean-Jacques Tarbès takes full advantage and, for much of a film, we are treated to a near non-stop parade of glistening, barely-clothed flesh. In terms of atmosphere La Piscine is wholly successful, conveying both the heat of this particular late sixties summer and the heat between its characters. On top of this we also find a Michel Legrand score that helps emphasise the intensity yet still retain the composer’s usual pop edge. Fittingly such a description works for the film as a whole - what could be more populist than Delon, et al sunning it up in their skimpies?
Yet whilst La Piscine looks terrific and comes with solid performances from its main players, this overall populist tone cannot help but make the film a little lightweight. It isn’t on a par with the Pinter/Losey films already invoked or those numerous Hitchcockian thrillers Chabrol set amongst the bourgeois during much of his career. And, unfortunately, it’s hard not to think of such films whilst watching. In the hands of a Chabrol, say, you get the sense that the tensions would be more pronounced and that the developments would possess a greater kick. In other words, you can’t help but feel that Deray was most likely the wrong man for the job. La Piscine isn’t your typical Deray film, despite those central genre underpinnings, and it shows. He hasn’t made a bad film, just one that’s undercooked and unable to match its full potential.
La Piscine is one of a number of unexpected titles currently earning themselves a UK Blu-ray and DVD release through Park Circus. Others include Milos Forman’s first US picture, the superb Taking Off (coincidentally also written by Jean-Claude Carrière), and Peter Mullan’s wonderful feature debut Orphans. As with those titles the Blu-ray and DVD editions have been released separately as opposed to going the ‘dual format’ route. The Blu-ray was provided for review purposes and thus it is this release under consideration below.
The dual-layered disc is encoded for Region B and comes with a welcome assortment of extras. Utilising a recent restoration, the picture quality is very good but stops short of being superb. As should be expected we find the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio in place and the original mono soundtrack with optional English subtitles. The print is mostly free of damage or blemishes of any kind and the colours are strong and seemingly correct. (Flesh tones certainly appear as they should - and given the amount on display we would undoubtedly notice if they were not.) The level of detail has a tendency to fluctuate between the excellent and the merely okay, but the fact that it does waver would suggest such issues could be inherent in the original materials. There are also some instances of minor colour bleed (a green dress worn by Schneider affecting the edges of her profile, for example) that highlight the films age. From a transfer point of view, however, there are no issues to speak of: the grain is consistent and there are no signs of problems relating to compression (which could have proven problematic given the amount of movement in water the film contains). The soundtrack is similarly damage-free and without technical flaws. The subtitles - in white - also pose no problems.
The main special feature is the inclusion of the alternate English-language version of La Piscine, here titled - of course - The Swimming Pool. Note that this isn’t simply a case of a dubbed soundtrack being applied (as per, for example, the BFI’s Pasolini Blu-rays), but rather a separate entity filmed in conjunction with French-language version (as per, for example, the English-language M that appears on the Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of Fritz Lang’s classic); Delon, et al are all speaking in English and the opening and closing credits come entirely in English. This version runs for 114 minutes, ie a good nine minutes shorter than the French-language one, though it was difficult to discern (without the ability to watch both side-by-side) where the differences lie. I’m tempted to suggest therefore that it is simply the rhythms of the different languages/dialogue that has prompted the English-language version to be slightly shorter. Note, however, that this version - though also coming from a fine-looking print - is presented in standard definition.
Rounding off the package we also find the original French theatrical trailer, a gallery containing fourteen production stills in both black and white and colour, and an alternative ending (which runs for mere seconds) added to the end of the Spanish release to appease its moralistic Franco regime.