Sunday, February 28, 2016

Neglected Gem #90: Deep End (1970)

John Moulder-Brown as Mike in Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970).

Like steaming breath or moving shadows, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) is impossible to fix in your mind and eye even as you watch it, and afterwards you may be uncertain what you’ve seen, let alone what it has meant. Everything occurs as if incidentally, never with a sense of theme being advanced, story developed, or fate fulfilled. The movie is simply happening. Yet not exactly randomly, for it has an intelligence which is encompassing if not controlling; and not in any documentary sense it’s too not-quite-real for that. Not “unreal,” and certainly not “surreal,” just … not quite real. Deep End is not easy to describe.

A sex comedy of sorts, it centers on Mike (John Moulder-Brown), a public-school dropout who takes a job as an attendant at a rundown London bathhouse. His coworker Susan (Jane Asher), some ten years older, is variously playful and sadistic with him, encouraging the boy’s hapless attentions only to cruelly repel them. Narratively, Deep End (which Skolimowski co-wrote with Jerzy Gruza and Boleslaw Sulik) is the story of Mike’s deepening obsession with Susan. Experientially, it’s a neutral observation of eccentric humans interacting in seedy, secretive places. Along with innumerable delicacies of style and scene, that neutrality (not the same as objectivity) engenders characters who are inscrutable and sometimes dislikable, situations that are pitched between absurd comedy and simple unpleasantness. The tone is in that sense very Eastern European, reminding us that Skolimowski was a Pole whose arrival on international radar was via Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), co-written by the two friends after they had graduated from the state film academy at Lodz. Deep End has less in common with that basically naturalistic thriller than with later Polanski explorations of decay and derangement Repulsion (1965), Cul de Sac (1966), The Tenant (1976). Like those, it’s in parts daydream, nightdream, wet dream, ironic anecdote, and oblique study of indefinably unsavory things.

 Jane Asher as Susan.

And like those films, it may strike you as loathsome, simply because it seeks the perverse and then withholds judgment, leaving you to respond as you will. There are paradoxes. Often secondary actors are pushed at the camera, their faces made gross and overemphatic; yet in this cold, dark, sleazy version of London, people can be unexpectedly decent to each other. (See Mike’s brief encounter with a broken-legged prostitute.) A male swim coach with whom Susan is having a fling is shown taunting, teasing, and touching his female students in ways which, seen today, are criminally inappropriate: the film is not charmed by him, yet it asks us to watch. Another scene features Diana Dors once considered England’s Marilyn Monroe, by this time blowzy and overweight as a bathhouse client whose orgasm involves smothering poor Mike in her cleavage while violently describing a football star’s drive to the goal. That the coach’s behavior registers as disgusting and the woman’s as sad, touching, or humorous may reveal nothing but our relative responses to girls and boys as victims of molestation, or to men and women as molesters. But that’s no small thing to ponder and here it has truly been revealed, not trumpeted. Respond as you will.

Skolimowski’s neutrality is not Olympian superiority or intellectualized misogyny. The Dors character is treated honestly, even respectfully, as a life-coarsened woman who knows what she needs and, having gotten it, keeps moving; Dors herself isn’t humiliated or made pitiable, as she might have been in a Cassavetes movie. As Mike, Moulder-Brown is winsome but not cloying. Darting through the bathhouse or riding his ten-speed through the streets, he is all gangly limbs, forever tossing back his overgrown bangs. Jane Asher’s Susan is, as she must be, the hot and cold heart of the movie, its oddness and allure, alternately compassionate and closed off. It would be difficult to imagine a finer performance here than Asher’s. Her beauty enables us to see Susan in Mike’s terms, as an object of erotic fascination, while her skill reveals Susan for what Mike gradually discovers her to be a mixed-up post-adolescent barely aware of her power, or of herself. Asher’s attractiveness is obvious; more elusive are the languorous manner and mournful eyes which, here as in earlier films (1961’s Loss of Innocence, 1964’s The Masque of the Red Death, 1966’s Alfie), suggest a soul deeply saddened by early hurts, or by some fundamental disappointment with life.

In a porn theater, Mike makes a play for Susan.

Visually and dramatically, Skolimowski does not shape scenes so much as allow them to coalesce before the camera and before the eye. A long sequence in and around a porno theater, with Mike making a secret play for Susan as she sits with her fiancĂ© and a Swedish “educational” film flashes overhead, is quite funny, though it inspires little laughter. It takes time for key images (Susan’s yellow raincoat and white boots; Mike’s sensual swim with a standee of Susan that morphs into Susan herself; a slow trickle of blood that becomes the red steel of a bicycle frame) to sink in as visual signals. The bathhouse itself is a humid labyrinth of moldy corridors and frosted windows, all peeling paint, cracked tile, and dank lighting. You can almost smell the wet rot. Mike and Susan eat lunch on a diving board, and converse while crawling around concrete dugouts, surrounded by pipes and fixtures and weird riggings. (The art direction is credited to Max Ott Jr. and Tony Pratt; David Lynch, unsurprisingly, is an avowed fan.) A Cat Stevens song, “But I Might Die Tonight” (from his 1971 Tea for the Tillerman album), echoes into or bursts upon events at the most unexpected and effective points, carrying dreamlike notes of submerged panic, as well as the fatalism which is the closest the film comes to a universal value.

Deep End is certainly a gem, but to call it “neglected” may be inaccurate. It was praised in its day; in 1980, Danny Peary included it in his pioneering compendium, Cult Movies; and in 2011 it received a restoration, ceremonial screening, and DVD release from the British Film Institute. Yet it is, in a strange, wholly salutary way, easy to forget evocative and evanescent. I suspect it’s a work whose very existence will continue to bear remarking, so that old fans are reawakened to it and new ones may find it. Its uniqueness ensures it will never be a well-known movie, only an unrepeatable one.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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