The first image we see is a closeup of something that might be skin. The texture seems right but the color is off. It’s too pale, even for England, more cadaverous than human. As if to confirm this suspicion, a drop of red liquid falls onto the surface. But this too is unnatural – too viscous, too electric to be blood, except in a cheap horror movie. And that’s not what Deep End is, right?
We’re being toyed with, of course. We’re looking at a bicycle, belonging to the film’s fifteen-year-old protagonist Michael. It’s the first of director Jerzy Skolimowski’s many pranks and feints throughout his 1970 international breakthrough. Though he was thirty-two at the time with eleven features already under his belt – mostly shot in his native Poland – there’s a heedless anarchy to his English language debut that feels aligned with the sensibilities of someone much closer to boyhood. Coming in just at the tail-end of the “swinging London” 60’s, soaked with bright colors and the fruitful fumes of sex, there’s the feeling that anything could happen, not all of it good. Not all of it is.
Michael (John Moulder Brown) has just dropped out of school and taken a job in a suburban bath house. Skolimowski unbalances his viewers right away; throughout Michael’s interview with the bath house owner, an alarm brays constantly in the background, disrupting the dialogue. The cacophony continues as he’s shown the ropes by Susan (an alluring Jane Asher), an ambiguously older but plainly more experienced redhead, who initiates the virginal Michael into a world of raucous youths roughhousing in the pool and louche adults waiting behind closed doors. “Just go along with the gag, that’s all they want,” she says when he balks at the idea of “servicing” customers. In his first such encounter, a woman asks if he likes football then proceeds to dry hump him while moaning about Georgie Best.
The production design of the facilities is like grindhouse Wes Anderson – luridly painted and riddled with filth but enticing in its grimy precision, as if sketched by a deviant hand. All of Skolimowski’s London has a nocturnal edge, even in daylight, though his characters rarely venture into it; when not at the bath house, they’re sneaking into dirty movies or stumbling into brothels. There’s an unnerving hermetic seal over the environment, almost prophylactic in nature, if you will. While many of the situations that Michael gets into are undeniably comic, there’s menace too, a creeping impression that the surface may soon rupture, revealing the rottenness underneath.
Gary Arnold’s assertion in The Washington Post that the film is “half-Truffaut, half-Polanski” is on point in that regard, though he considered it a flaw. Modern viewers, on the other hand, may be more attuned to this vibe, particularly those who were taught to be vigilant against male toxicity and entitlement. Though terms like “nice guy” and “locker room talk” are never uttered in the film, Deep End feels prescient in its depiction of how dehumanizing attitudes towards women live latent in the atmosphere, and how that hostility can become overt in the right circumstances. Both Michael’s old classmates and the forty-something boiler room attendant speak of “giving it” to Susan. The swimming coach, who taught at Michael’s school, openly slaps the bottoms of his female teenage pupils. Some mindsets are never outgrown.
Michael’s infatuation with Susan initially seems more innocent, the boy too hapless and easily flustered to pose much of a threat. Her reception of him runs hot and cold; she can turn on a dime from flirtatious to maternal, indulgent to irritated. Asher plays her with an insouciant melancholy, constantly testing the boundaries of men’s patience with her, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes out of fear, and Skolimowski’s camera often keeps her at an ardent remove, as if it’s hesitant to approach her in the same ways as Michael. She holds her knowledge of the world like a match about to burn her, aware of both her power and its limits. It’s easy to see why he loves her. It’s also easy to see that his love is a hair’s breadth away from hatred.
Eventually Michael becomes dissatisfied with merely sharing lunches and swapping shifts, and his behavior veers to copping a non-consensual feel of Susan in a movie theater and stalking her outside a nightclub. Yet even these scenes have an impish energy; Skolimowski, who also wrote the script, delights in letting them zig and zag in unexpected directions, stretching them on until they become akin to the Simpsons rake gag. Michael orders so many hot dogs from a vendor outside the nightclub, for example, that he starts getting them gratis. Our laughter lulls us into forgetting what we’re actually seeing.
But once Susan’s ambivalent feelings towards him curdle into outright loathing, Michael escalates even further, engaging in petty retaliation against the various men in her life – accusing her fiance of trying to molest him and putting glass under the tires of the swimming coach’s car – until he accosts Susan herself on the tube, pulling at her hair and shrieking about her sexual escapades like a peevish child. Out of his depth when confronted with the actual contours of physical intimacy, he can only retreat into his dreams. By the final scenes, these fantasies have converged with his reality in treacherous ways.
To reveal how the film, ahem, climaxes would be a crime to viewers who haven’t yet experienced it. It also risks painting the film as a simplistic “birth of an incel” screed. But Deep End, like all of Skolimowski’s work, is far more complex than its surface pleasures or hairpin turns let on. Suffice to say that Michael’s last act feels as much accidental as foreordained. The skin and liquid that opened the film flood the frame once more, rendered newly perverse by all that’s happened in between. Our hero gets what he wants, but at the expense of possibly ever getting anything again.
“Deep End” is streaming on the Criterion Channel.