It proves hard to define the tone of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End, which flopped upon its initial release in 1970 only to undergo significant re-evaluation years later. Ostensibly a saucy, knockabout swimming pool romp, it develops into a surreal dive into the waters of destructive sexuality. Skolimowski was working in the UK after falling foul of the censors in his native Poland, and he brought an off-kilter perspective of unfamiliarity to bear on London with this grimy coming-of-age yarn. It’s set in a seedy city filled with lecherous eyes – a city on a muddy come-down from the fantasies of the swinging sixties, though nobody has thought to tell its grotesquely amorous inhabitants.
Child star John Moulder-Brown plays Mike who wanders wide-eyed into this city when he takes a job as the male attendant at the local municipal baths. It’s a sublime bit of casting, offering up a recognisable naïf for the audience to watch flounder and then sinking into the depths of lust and obsession. He plays Mike with a innocence that probably belies his fifteen years, but which is further emphasised as repression by the sexual confidence of his colleague, the women’s attendant, Susan (Jane Asher). From his first day at the baths, the carnal is imbued with an unsettling danger as a client forcibly co-opts him into her private pleasure (a ripe cameo from a football-mad Diana Dors).
Susan, on the other hand, uses her sexuality as a form of manipulation – of her fiancee (Christopher Sandford), a local swimming instructor (Karl Michael Vogler), and Mike himself. In an early scene, she strips to a bikini to eat lunch with Mike and grins gleefully when he angrily fights some other boys who openly ogle her. Later it is evident that her attentions have skewed his understanding of intimacy when a girl he cares for propositions him, he is unable or unwilling to acknowledge it as genuine. The knife-edge on which Mike’s desire begins to mature is the one on which Skolimowski purposefully leaves it. Despite the overt, and often quaint, humour, there is an pervading sense of menace. The first shot of the film is red emulsion paint running down Mike’s bicycle, which could just as easily be blood.
In one scene, when Susan has a stand-off with a receptionist who’d also like to get her claws into the impressionable young Mike, a worker literally walks through the back of the frame painting the baths’ otherwise green walls red. Primary colours provide focal points throughout, but red – also the colour of Susan’s hair – often recurs at a confluence of attraction and antagonism. La petite mort seems to be the only way to describe the agony of Mike’s existence as his behaviour becomes ever more erratic in his increasing desperation to seduce Susan.
Mike eventually crosses a line cleverly revealing his dark side to an audience to whom, until now he has been relatable and empathetic. He hurls recriminations at Susan when he finds an advertising cutout in a Soho sex shop that looks like her. He rages that she’s not ‘that kind of girl’ to which she bitterly asks what kind of girl she is supposed to be. However, by this point, Mike is too far gone for a moment of humility and self-reflection. In this strange and sleazy London, he’s taken a plunge off the Deep End.
The Kinoteka Polish Film Festival takes place from 7-28 April 2016. For more coverage, follow this link.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson