Eaux Profondes Review
It's evident very early on in Eaux Profondes that something isn't quite right in the marriage of Vic and Melanie and, based on Patricia Highsmith's novel 'Deep Waters', it's only a matter of time before events are going to take a dark spiraling downward trajectory in the direction of crime and murder. There is however a significant difference between how Highsmith views 'Deep Waters' as a study of mental breakdown and perhaps schizophrenia on the part of the main character, Vic, and how director Michel Deville - most significantly entirely rewriting the ending - sees Eaux Profondes as a kind of twisted love story.
Regardless of what lies behind the problem, the fact that their marriage isn't in a good place is played out for all to see at a party in the opening scene of the film. It's not just that Vic seems very open-minded and tolerant of his wife's open flirtations with other men, and shows no sign of resentment or anger at her behaviour. It not just that Melanie actually seems to get a kick out of carrying-on in this manner right in front of him and in full view of the gossiping small community of Jersey. It's not even that there's something strange about the fact that Vic indulges Melanie's behaviour, permitting her even to carry on drunken late-night one-on-one parties with her current chosen playmate of the moment. No, it's more of a case that behind the forced insouciance of his smile and his impassive demeanour something deep down in Vic looks ready to break.
It emerges at first in a relatively harmless way, Vic confiding to Melanie's latest conquest that when he doesn't approve of her taste in men, he bumps them off. Since the murder of Melanie's last lover, Malcolm McRae, is currently unsolved, that creates a certain element of unease with the new boyfriend who beats a hasty retreat, much to Melanie's annoyance. The manner in which Vic jokingly makes this claim with more than a hint of a threat behind it however leaves the viewer unsure as to whether he isn't actually capable of being pushed to such limits. It doesn't take too long to find out.
Deville's 1981 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's crime thriller inevitably draws comparisons to the corrupt middle-class families of Claude Chabrol's thrillers from this period, and in terms of the actual mechanics of the murder plot, it would appear to be not that far removed from Jacques Deray's La Piscine (1969). What distinguishes Eaux Profondes from those other works and places it on the same level as Chabrol's Le Cri du Hibou (1987) or René Clément's Plein Soleil is the quality of Patricia Highsmith's psychologically probing source novel. If the motivations and the consequences aren't followed through to the letter and are actually twisted around by the end, this still gives the film adaptation a solid literary basis. What it also benefits from, in this respect, are two superb actors in Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant capable of exploring those extreme personalities with a measure of sinister subtlety.
The changes to setting and characterisation, relocating 'Deep Waters' from prosperous suburban America small town to the off-shore French community of Jersey, are mostly insignificant and have minimal impact. Vic in the original novel is an independently wealthy non-profit and probably loss-making small-press publisher, editor and translator of artisan editions of poetry and esoterica. In the film version, he's a businessman and artisan perfumier. It's his intellectual rigour, his schizophrenic detachment from any kind of sociability on anything but a polite surface level, that marks out his true nature, and Trintignant - retaining Vic's hobby of breeding snails - has the ability to get across that sinister side and the implied threat of mental instability with understated menace.
Isabelle Huppert, early in a career that would see her fearlessly take on and show a measure of depth in similarly challenging superficially cold and aloof characters, finds plenty to get her teeth into as Melanie. Cool and convincingly flirtatious, she's not as much of a lush as Highsmith's Melanie or prone to angry outbursts - although she can give a smile that could kill - but appears to be more calculating in how far she can push Vic's passivity. She's aware that he has a dark side and knows she's not so much flirting with the other men as with the dangerous side of Vic. She probably hasn't thought through quite what she wants to achieve by this, taunting her husband by slumming with sleazy dopes and weedy excuses for men, intellectually inferior types that Vic (Vic = Victor) undoubtedly feels she has picked up as a calculated insult to himself. As far as Michel Deville is concerned however, it all just an attempt to reawaken Vic's love for her.
In some respects, that is indeed one level of characterisation Highsmith's novel explores but the social roles, the situations, the motivations and the personality traits operate on other more complex levels than this. Deville does well to include some of these issues - mother and daughter swapping places, with the child acting like a mature adult and the woman being treated like a spoilt child - but in other areas (relating the story of Samson and Delilah), it feels a little overstated. Such simplification of the plot and characterisation is however undoubtedly necessary in any screen adaptation, but with actors of the calibre of Huppert and Trintignant on his side and some elegant direction, Deville manages in his own way to swerve the film away from its crime-thriller trajectory and resolution and steps suggestively into the undercurrents of those deeper waters.
Eaux Profondes is released on Blu-ray disc in France by Gaumont as part of a series of new low-budget editions of classic French cinema. I was under the impression that these were barebones, basic get-them-out-there releases, but in the case of the Michel Deville titles available so far - already given fine HD restored transfers on DVD several years ago - the presentation is of the highest standard. The disc is BD50, full 1080/24p, with an AVC/MPEG4 encode. Presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the image is just superb, stable, with natural grain, showing the gorgeous tones of cinematography with perfect contrast and brightness. It really 'pops' off the screen. The audio too is clear with no audible distortion, dampening or noise. It's given a DTS HD-Master Audio 2.0 mono mix. While many of the new Gaumont BD releases have English subtitles included, there are unfortunately none on Eaux Profondes. French hard of hearing captions are available however that slightly readapt the actual dialogue in places for concision.
Extra features (in SD and PAL format) are thorough and of great interest, although they are not subtitled. Jean-Louis Trintignant provides a fascinating perspective on the work 20 years later in an interview (27') with contributions from Michel Deville, and there's a feature on Deville's approach to working with many famous actors in an overview of his film work. The film's trailer is also included (in HD). Packaging indicates that the BD is all-region compatible (A/B/C).