Deep End – Caught in the undertow

deependposter_0823200709181.jpgDeep End (1971)

directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

An unearthed classic of early seventies cinema, Jerzy Skolimowski’s darkly satirical psychological drama of young lust, sexual callousness, obsession, and fantasy is a different kind of coming of age film. 15-year-old Mike (John Moulder-Brown) gets his first job, as an attendant in the Men’s private baths of a dreary, clammy public swimming pool in suburban London. His tips, however, come from the middle-aged women in the other section, who pay generously for him to (in the words of his gorgeous co-worker Susan, played by Jane Asher) “just go along with the gag, that’s all they want.” All Mike wants is Susan.

Polish director Skolimowski is a curious cult director without a cult, the creator of another weird and creepy film deserving resurrection – the 1978 psychological mind game The Shout – who last had limited arthouse success in 1982 with Moonlighting, starring Jeremy Irons. He’s arguably had more popular success as an actor (most recently in Eastern Promises) than as a director, where his themes are reminiscent of the early work of his Polish film school comrade, Roman Polanski.

Deep End combines Skolimowski’s own darkly psychological interests with a perfectly British sensibility rubbed raw. He punctuates the veneer of social realism with cheeky sexual metaphors, from the red he injects into the film like a flush of lust and desire to the goopy spurt of an ineffectual fire extinguisher, which serves as the final punctuation of a scene of frustrated coitus. Cat Stevens sings a few songs with the group The Can, but they’re a lot darker that those he did for Harold and Maude, another film about a young virgin in a relationship with an older woman.

deepend_0823200709181.jpg
John Moulder-Brown as Mike: over his head

The film tosses Mike into the deep end of sexual desire and social currency, where the teen is ill-equipped to deal with his urges or the emotions, let alone the mercenary folks around him. Former British sex symbol Diana Dors plays a fleshy, leering customer who practically mauls young Mike, treating him like a sex toy to get herself off in the most hilariously grotesque and creepy bit of self-gratification I’ve seen.

Mike, meanwhile, turns stalker, obsessively following Susan on her dates. She alternately encourages and attacks him for it, enjoying the attention and the sense of power (at least until he gets too intrusive), treating it all like a game. Mike may be wrapped up in his own wants, demanding attention (or, more specifically, Susan’s attentions) like a child throwing a tantrum, but she’s no idealized innocent and is just as self-absorbed, emotionally unaware and inarticulate. She’s engaged to a creep with the money to lift her out of her dreary existence while simultaneously engaged in an affair with an older swimming instructor who paws at his teenage girl students. With Mike, she can be chummy and then turn cold and vindictive, flirting and teasing and then callously turning on him, as much out of boredom as her own frustrations as the unfulfilled object of everyone’s obsession. Mike just turns to his own fantasies, which are no less destructive. Sex may be power, but it certainly doesn’t empower anyone here.

“Deep End” has been unavailable in any form for years, but Paramount recently struck a new print for revival screenings across the country. It plays the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle from Friday, January 19 through Thursday, January 24.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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