West Germany / UK, 1970
Review by Anna Bak-Kvapil
Posted on 13 June 2011
Source 35mm Print
Deep End, neglected for decades and only now revived and legitimized through a restoration, a DVD release, and screenings at the British Film Institute and the Museum of the Moving Image, could be lumped in with other British masterpieces of the late 60’s and early 70’s, like Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! and Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance. But Deep End is unconcerned with the politics, class commentary, and even recognizable locations (much of the film was shot in Munich) that were touchstones of British films at the time. Polish- born Jerzy Skolimowski, a former screenwriting partner of Roman Polanski for Knife in the Water, shares Polanski’s ability to create a world riddled with Eastern European black humor, but free of a specific cultural identity. An émigré’s sense of dislocation saturates Deep End, and the main figure of the film remains a stranger in a strange land, lonely and uncomprehending.
In Deep End, a teenage boy in love with an older woman becomes increasingly obsessed until things go very wrong. Skolimowski populates the film with cheerfully eccentric characters and throws in slapstick situations nicked from silent films, adding an edge of comical perversity to bleak events (shades of Hitchcock, minus the rigorous formalism). Handheld camera work and abrupt editing matches the quixotic urges and restless pace of the teenage protagonist. Constructing the film with impulsive energy, Skolimowski doesn’t pause long enough for dramatic pathos to sink in until the queasily mind-blowing final scene.
Opening ominously with a close-up of dripping red paint and Cat Stevens singing “But I Might Die Tonight,” the camera moves away to reveal the harmless red metal limbs of a bicycle, and cuts to Mike (a sixteen year-old John Moulder-Brown), riding this bike through rainy streets. He’s just been hired for his first job as an attendant at Newford Baths, a public pool that offers private rooms for questionable services. The baths are dull and dilapidated, but thrum with clammy sexuality. Pale knock-kneed schoolgirls are forced into the pool by a leering coach. Old women waddle wetly around the halls, showing too much flesh and staring at the nubile Mike. His long brown hair and choirboy face elicits an overt come-on from a customer, a double-chinned and bepolka-dotted football fan played with gusto by aging British sexpot Diana Dors. Mike’s 24 year-old supervisor, Susan (played by Jane Asher) knows more than enough about the habits of bath house regulars and points out that acquiescence to their whims earns liberal tips.
Initially, a familial level of affectionate ease exists between Mike and Susan: she treats him like an older sister would her much younger brother, giving him advice and taunting him, but in a distant, distracted way. Mike, a ball of hormonal anxiety, is always hovering and dancing around Susan, puckish and threatening chaos. Their relationship turns peculiar when Mike follows Susan and her boyfriend to a porno theater, and fondles her in the dark. When her date leaves to alert the theater manager to Mike’s harassment, Susan teases him by kissing him on the lips, smiling to herself as a bobby evicts him from the theater. Mike falls into a pattern of stalking and confronting Susan, and their interactions grow increasingly violent until every encounter ends with Mike dragging Susan towards him as she struggles away.
Susan is the muse and focal point of Deep End—the camera follows Mike everywhere, but he is always oriented towards Susan, whose bronze hair, white skin, and glaring, lemon yellow overcoat delineates her against backdrops of run-down hallways and winter streets. When she lures a stray dog to her, then hits it with a well-aimed snowball, she demonstrates her penchant for careless sadism, and treats Mike much the same way, her displays of affection followed by prickly rejection. During a long and frenetic scene set in the brothels and peep show parlors of Soho, Mike finds a clue suggesting Susan is an expensive call girl. She denies it, maintaining a duality that Mike’s straightforward psyche can’t process, and he crumbles under the weight of her contradictions. The hypocrisy of sexual attraction and the ugly business of sexual commodification form the subtext of Deep End, with the virginal Mike a credulous and increasingly agitated observer of a carnival of prostitutes, pedophiles, and adulterers.
In keeping with the aqueous leitmotif of Deep End, Mike consummates his sexual longing in water, glimpsing or holding a naked female body as he swims in the pool, twice as a fantasy, a third and final time in reality. The pool endows these scenes with an amniotic sense of security, Mike’s actions a hidden self-nurturing at odds with the harsh outside world of alienation and aggression. Deep End is often called a coming of age film, a genre that carries the expectation that the protagonist will be left sadder but wiser, passing through a transformative experience that deposits them, newly mature, on the other side. But the pool is Mike’s end point—he won’t grow past it. The coming of age story is an exercise in nostalgia, an examination of lost innocence, but no one in Deep End is innocent, and Skolimowski is never, ever sentimental.