In 2008, Jerzy Skolimowski returned from a self imposed, seventeen year absence from directing (reportedly to concentrate on his true passion – painting) with his much lauded come back, Four Nights With Anna. Last month he followed up that success with Essential Killing, described by many as his most painterly presented film yet. It has also gained high praise for its lead performance by Vincent Gallo – an actor renowned for being difficult to direct. To coincide with its release, and to celebrate this underrated director’s return from the cinematic wilderness, the good people of the BFI have gracefully decided to restore one of Skolimowski’s most revered and respected pieces from the 1970s – his previously unattainable cult hit about adolescent passion, Deep End.
Mike (John Moulder-Brown) is fresh out of school and still very much wet behind the ears when he takes up his first job as a bathroom attendant at a rundown swimming baths in West London. It is here he meets Susan (Jane Asher) and it doesn’t take long before this attractive young redhead, with her breathtaking beauty and teasing demeanour, becomes the object of Mike’s obsessions.
The revelation that not only is Susan engaged, but also having a lurid affair with Mike’s former P.E teacher, is like an arrow through the young boy’s heart. Yet, whilst many of us would begrudgingly surrender defeat, and bottle away our carnal desires, it only strengthens Mike’s resolve to destroy Susan’s wedding plans and expose her adulterous nature in an attempt to make her his own.
What starts as an innocent crush soon manifests itself as something much worse and as Mike’s determination over takes his common sense, the lines of decency and morality begin to diminish and there seems to be no stopping the momentum of this treacherous fixation. He quickly falls steadfast into a series of events which look on course to end in tears…
Released during the height of the French New Wave and the hangover effect of the swinging ‘60s, Skolimowski’s British made tale of obsession and desire is a delightful mix of the type of work that both Godard and Truffaut were creating at the time but with a distinctive underlying English sensibility. This delightful mix of the desolate beauty of London with the sort of subtle nuances and loving attention given to character detail which we’ve come to love from the nouvelle vague truly separates Deep End from a lot of the cinema being produced here at that time. Our unconscious manner for comparing and creating films to the modern Hollywood mould often results in nothing more than a continued conveyor belt of drab, uninspired and, most importantly, unoriginal films. Deep End is a wonderful example of how drawing influence from other cultures can have a strikingly profound effect on a movie without making it completely inaccessible to a wider audience.
John Moulder-Brown does a wonderful job with the character of Mike. Starting off as a picture of innocence, he seamlessly crosses the boundaries of right and wrong without succumbing to a melodramatic about turn, making his performance all the more haunting. Jane Asher, with her ‘60s chic style and piercing stare needs little direction in portraying a temptress; she could quite easily have stood mute on screen for the film’s entirety and still have passed as competent within the role. However, she doesn’t and you’ll soon find yourself sympathising with Mike’s infatuation for her, although perhaps not to the same fatal degree. A fleeting cameo by Doris Dors is also due a mention, as a mildly camp carry-on-esque turn as a steamy, bath house patron. She undoubtedly opens Mike’s eyes to the seedy underside of adulthood and singlehandedly removes the last shreds of his innocence. It’s a pivotal performance that could so easily have undone Skolimowski’s hard work at creating a story of passion without hysteria, yet instead adds some light relief to an otherwise subtly sinister depiction of sexual fixation.
Deep End also garnished its cult status thanks to its eclectic soundtrack by Krautrock heroes Can and the guilty pleasure that is Cat Stevens. The fact that the undiscerning ear could easily miss this whilst watching is in itself a compliment to the film’s production. It’s ever present, yet its unobtrusive nature makes it a perfect companion, never distracting you from the story that unfolds in front of your eyes or the dialogue that wisps along so elegantly.
The only criticism to be levied towards Deep End is the fairly obvious symbolic clues it leaves along the way that perhaps make the ending (which in itself has left many viewers wanting) not as poignant as perhaps it could have been. The final third lacks the ambiguity this film’s rich build up deserves, like those sitcoms which leave you cringing at what’s to follow. Skolimowski dark observation of Mike’s perilous descent into a maddening addiction for Susan, however palpable it may seem, surpasses being unbearable and instead leaves only the question of how this obvious fate will manifest itself into its logical conclusion.
Regarding the film’s digital transfer, the hard working restoration team at the BFI have yet again managed to do justice to another lost classic. The film may have aged noticeably, and the age old problem of poor 1970s dubbing is still apparent, but with regard to the lovingly recreated film print, you’d be hard pressed to criticise what is at heart a marvellous achievement for a film which deserves such a beautiful return to the big screen.
With Deep End, Skolimowski may have dived head first into the deepest part of the male psyche, but by no means does he sink under the pressure. Instead, he has created a film which manages to propel past its self imposed obstacles, which could otherwise have left it stranded in a sea of teenage confusion.