Sometimes an old movie just strikes a nerve, and that seems to be the case with La Piscine, Jacques Deray’s 1969 psychological thriller. It’s been playing, to enthusiastic crowds, at New York’s Film Forum since mid-May; it’s still running, at full price, even though it’s a) a fifty-plus-year-old movie to begin with, b) newly available on a Criterion Collection Blu-ray, and c) streaming now on the Criterion Channel.
So what, exactly, has rendered La Piscine so irresistible to New York City audiences in the summer of 2021? The simplest answer is that the picture is very, very good; the more precise one is that it is scorching hot, both literally and figuratively, which makes it an ideal entertainment for this Hot Girl Summer.
It opens with a key image: Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) laying in the sun, sunglasses on his face, next to a pool, his hand moving lazily through the cool water. He has a drink in his other hand, which he pours languidly into this mouth, and the entire tableaux is like a mission statement for the picture, a potent mixture of heat, “cool,” and sex. He’s soon joined at the pool by his lover Marianne (Romy Schneider); they touch and play and throw each other into the water, and the offhand intimacy of their interactions feels authentic. Jean-Paul and Marianne are impossibly attractive, financially comfortable, and extremely into each other. This kind of satisfaction and happiness can’t last long! Especially in a French film from the 1960s!
What’s remarkable about Deray’s screenplay – written with Jean-Claude Carriére and Alain Page – is how quickly and efficiently their bliss is unraveled. (The characters even note it, late in the film, in this exchange: “Are you angry with me?” “For what?” “For how quickly everything can change.”) Once their little poolside utopia is established, the couple’s old friend Harry (Maurice Ronet) roars up in a gorgeous sportscar with a beautiful young woman in the passenger seat – his daughter, Pénélope (Jane Birkin). “You two vanished without a word!” he exclaims, seemingly oblivious to the idea that this may have been on purpose.
The precise nature of the relationships are murky; Jean-Paul and Harry are old friends, their relationship pre-dating Jean-Paul and Marianne’s, but there are whispers that before Jean-Paul and Marianne hooked up, she and Harry may have had a fling. These overlapping histories result in a palpable tension between the two men, barely hidden behind a front of affability. There’s a specific way that Harry circles Jean-Paul, poking at him and hitting his softest spots the way that only longtime acquaintances can; he’ll ask Jean-Paul, a novelist turned ad-man, “So you’ve given up writing? I think that was the right choice,” or wonder aloud if Marianne has let herself go a bit (as if) while clearly still lusting after her himself.
So there’s an immediate sense of sexual curiosity, competitiveness, and jealousy, and that’s all aside from how clearly Jean-Paul wants to bed Harry’s daughter. But that seems like a mere fantasy until the night Harry brings a couple of dozen “friends” home with him for an impromptu party, and, as Jean-Paul puts it, “Some nights anything goes – or almost anything.” It becomes (via the picture’s copious nervous glances and loaded silences) a question of if, not when, these things are going to happen: When is Harry going to make a move on Marianne? When is Jean-Paul going to have the opportunity he’s longing for with Pénélope? Will Marianne be more receptive to the former because of the latter?
Because Demy sets up these conflicts and temptations with such clarity, the film’s sly pivot into thriller territory in the back half doesn’t feel like a stretch; obviously something bad is going to happen, and by the time we get there, a romantic betrayal seems about as harmful as an actual murder. The slow, knotty escalation of the sequence in question is agonizing; ditto the interrogation of the police inspector who comes a-calling afterwards, which Demy plays out in a series of long, lingering three- and four-shots, rendering those scenes mellow and low-key as Jean-Paul sweats out the questions and contradictions.
It’s that combination of lust and dread that makes La Piscine seem so ahead of its time; in its sexual candor and casual bloodlust, it plays like the embryo for the erotic thrillers of the ‘80s and ‘90s. But that combo may also be why it plays so well right now: we all thought we were going to have a summer of sex, lounging by the pool, drinking and screwing, and it turns out death is always just around the corner.