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Blu-ray Review: Jacques Deray’s La Piscine on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s dazzlingly immersive presentation of La Piscine offers the next best thing to a vacation on the French Riviera.

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La Piscine

Languorous and libidinous, Jacques Deray’s La Piscine captures as well as any film how the tedium of an ostensibly relaxing holiday at a scenic summer home can leave vacationers with nothing to do but gather around the pool and stare at each other’s half-naked bodies. Shot in slow, drifting long takes, the film provides plenty of opportunity to ogle the tanned, toned forms of its four major leads. Vacationing at a gorgeous villa on the French Riviera, would-be writer Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and his girlfriend, Marianne (Romy Schneider), kick off the film’s erotically charged high jinks with a steamy make-out session by the pool during which Jean-Paul urges Marianne to claw his back with her nails, after which he abruptly picks her up and tosses her into the pool.

This scene, in which boredom gradually gives way to more carnal matters and sadistic behavior, mirrors the film as a whole. When Jean-Paul’s old frenemy—and Marianne’s ex-lover—Harry (Maurice Ronet) comes by for an open-ended stay with his teenage daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin), in tow, the mood at the beach-view Saint-Tropez villa is quickly soured by simmering feelings of hatred, resentment, and jealousy. Harry makes not-so-subtle passes at his old flame, while Jean-Paul eventually starts cozying up to Penelope, for whom Harry harbors a creepy affection. The pool’s glistening azure water serves as the locus of the film’s broiling drama—the spot around which these four people convene each day and the weapon that will be used to kill one of them.

Though filled with murder, infidelity, and suggested incest, there’s something almost comforting about the film’s hothouse psychodrama. Like, say, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, La Piscine offers an appealing message: that the rich and beautiful are ultimately just as miserable as the rest of us. Delon, whose piercing blue eyes belie Jean-Paul’s perpetual restlessness, embodies the malaise and dissatisfaction of the bourgeoisie. Sure, Jean-Paul has, by any measure, an incredible life, from a gorgeous girlfriend to a well-paying job in marketing that permits him to enjoy month-long summer vacations, but deep down he’s unhappy because he sold out by giving up his ambitions of becoming a professional writer.

The screenplay, by Deray and Jean-Claude Carrière, fills in its characters’ backstories with a fairly clichéd and superficial assortment of jealousies, dreams deferred, and childhood rivalries. But Deray’s slow-burn directorial style gives enough space to the characters so that their broiling resentments aren’t confined to any one expository motive, but rather seem to arise organically from the psychological claustrophobia of sharing a house together.

When the film’s pivotal outbreak of violence occurs, it feels at once shocking and completely inevitable. Played out with a disturbing matter-of-factness, a drunken Harry slips into the pool late one night and Jean-Paul, who’s also been drinking, prevents him from climbing out. Jean-Paul’s actions at first seem playful, if sadistic, but gradually transform into chillingly cold-blooded homicide. This sequence recalls a similarly blasé slaying in René Clément’s Purple Noon, also carried out by a character played by Delon. But Deray protracts this opportunistic act of killing into an almost unbearably drawn-out affair, in which we can see Jean-Paul’s subtle shift in real time from a wounded child of privilege into a sociopathic murderer.

Once this violent rupture in the narrative occurs, the film moves on to a relatively banal policier mode, as local inspector Lévêque (Paul Crauchet) digs around to discover whether Harry’s death was the result of a freak mishap or murder. The charged atmosphere of torpid malevolence gives way to what’s essentially an overly morose episode of Columbo. But the film still has one trick up its sleeve, a final moment of tantalizing moral and emotional ambiguity—altered in some international versions of the film—that suggests that the rich may be able to get away with murder, but even that won’t make them happy.

Image/Sound

La Piscine is, more than anything else, a work of vivid sensory delights. The bronzed flesh of Marianne’s back, the polished crimson-and-chrome body of Harry’s Maserati, the effervescent aquamarine of the titular swimming pool all practically pop off the screen in the glorious new 4K digital restoration included on this Criterion Blu-ray release. The restoration gorgeously preserves the grain of the 35mm original negatives, giving the presentation a wonderfully tactile quality. The subtleties of the film’s spare sound design come through nicely in the restored monaural soundtrack, and Michel Legrand’s jazzy score positively sparkles.

Extras

Criterion has provided a thoughtful selection of extras, starting with the English-language version of the film, which was shot contemporaneously with the French edition. This version is presented with a fine audio-visual presentation, though it’s all around less eye-popping than the 4K restoration of the French version. An alternate ending, shot for the Spanish version, is also included and provides a more morally conservative capper to the film. Fifty Years Later, a 2019 documentary on the making of the film directed by Deray’s widow, Agnes Vincent-Deray, offers a fairly comprehensive production history, while an interview with scholar Nick Rees-Roberts is deep dive into La Piscine’s legacy in the fashion world. Archival footage of Deray and the four leads offers a peek behind the scenes of the production. The package is rounded out with a beautifully written and well-researched essay by critic Jessica Kiang.

Overall

Criterion’s dazzlingly immersive presentation of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine offers the next best thing to a vacation on the French Riviera.

Cast: Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, Jane Birkin, Paul crauchet, Suzie Jaspard Director: Jacques Deray Screenwriter: Jean-Claude Carrière, Jacques Deray Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 122 min Rating: NR Year: 1969 Release Date: July 20, 2021 Buy: Video

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