The Searing Style of Jacques Deray’s La piscine

A rectangular swimming pool framed by shaded stones and trees under the blinding sun, each element a character in itself. Marianne and Jean-Paul live freely, the lazy, good times in a magnificent villa in the South of France. Directed by Jacques Deray and starring Romy Schneider (Marianne), Alain Delon (Jean-Paul), Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin, La piscine (1969) teases the viewer with a relative bohemian atmosphere and calmness of the St. Tropez surroundings, only to reveal a suspenseful plot, with dramatic eye contact, sexual tension and a subtle intensity of the characters, eventually taking a dark turn. But an unease is felt from the very beginning. A huis-clos atmosphere. The ever present swimming pool. Oftentimes, time seems suspended. Deray’s discreet, almost impassive camera examines the slightest gestures, stares and silences, capturing the characters’ muted confrontations, hidden thoughts and secret motivations. “The less you put in words, the more you will oblige me to have imagination,” Deray instructed Jean-Claude Carrière when he was working on the script.

Alain Delon plays the writer Jean-Paul, staying in a luxurious villa on the coast with his lover Marianne (Romy Schneider). Their idyllic vacation comes to a halt when Marianne’s former lover, Harry (Maurice Ronet), arrives with his teenage daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin). On the jazzy score of Michel Legrand, Jacques Deray directs with great style a searing psychosexual thriller, while drawing on the bigger than life personalities and star charisma of his protagonists – Schneider and Delon again together on screen after having been lovers off screen, and Delon reunited with Ronet nine years after Plein soleil. “I did not want to make expert panoramas, but I wanted to constantly go towards the gaze,” Jacques Deray confessed. “I was lucky to have Delon, Romy Schneider or Ronet in front of my lens. With actors like these, the camera can drag on a bit in close-up: you don’t get bored.”

“I knew nothing about this film before I had the opportunity to work on the Criterion release,” film poster designer Michael Boland, who did the beautifully intense, subtly disquieting cover art for the newly restored Criterion Collection edition, set to be released next month, tells me. “However, it was not only its general appeal but probably its importance to film. I would not be surprised to learn that this is a film that is studied for its ability to continually keep the viewer uncomfortable and for the insular environment that never seems forced or contrived.

“The cast exists in an oasis from which we get glimpses of a world outside of its natural boundaries. There is the occasional sliver of the Mediterranean and the intrusion of people, but nothing ever breaks the privacy and secrecy of what plays out around the pool and its gardens. There is always a shield or a wall to keep events contained and allows for some very questionable choices.

“The pallete is all natural warm skin tones that are made even more luscious by the blues and greens of the environment. It is only the dark empty shadows that hints at the ominous mood which hangs over it all. The entirety of the film is a study in subtleties and control.”

The costumes blend in with the surroundings, and at the same time perfectly embody the style of the ‘60s and the visionary Parisian movement of the times, led by André Courrèges, Paco Rabbane and Pierre Cardin, that cut away superfluous material, decoration and introduced geometry and new materials for fashion. The costumes in La piscine were designed by Courrèges, whose clothes are considered to be magical in their simplicity – “My style accompanies a silhouette, a way of moving through life.” In 1950, Courrèges was apprenticed to Cristóbal Balenciaga, whom he considered his mentor, and worked with him for ten years. It was Balenciaga who taught him, more than anyone else, that style was “the combination of technique, aesthetics and finishing into a single harmonious result”. He is considered by many to be an architect of fashion design because of his devotion to construction, taking inspiration from men’s clothes, finding their practicality suitable for the modern woman. In 1961, he opened his own fashion house, Maison de Courrèges, and since 1996, his wife, Coqueline, a Balenciaga pupil herself, has been the artistic director of the maison.

Romy Schneider’s clothes are simple, elegant, uncluttered. “It is important to distinguish between style and fashion. Fashions change; style perpetuates itself through a recognizable personality of its own”, says the designer. It is, however, the array of swimsuits that Romy is wearing that has garnered the greatest interest in the film, costumes-wise. The simplicity of lines and the predominance of a neutral colour palette, beautifully contrasting her tanned skin, instantly transformed them into classic items, much more so than the trapeze dress, a signature Courrèges design, for example, that can be easily pinned down to that particular period.

There is a simplicity and timelessness to Romy’s everyday looks as well. Shirts in basic colours, espadrilles, woven baskets and trousers. In the ’60s, André Courrèges became the man who put women in trousers: dispensed with front pleats and cuffs, side pockets, fly-fronts and even belt-tab waists. Romy wears hers in navy blue or white, paired with a monogrammed blue shirt, another style staple, with the collar and sleeves turned up, or polo shirts, and espadrilles. Her evening outfits, dresses in vibrant colours and psychedelic print, or bare-backed, are much more sophisticated and glamorous, a duality in appearance that reveals the complexity of her character.

While Romy’s wardrobe carries a very French, laid-back, nonchalant elegance quality, reflecting her as a well-heeled woman, her self-confidence, free will and womanhood, a very young and gamine Jane Birkin sports a pretty, preppy style (with the gingham print as a center piece). Birkin’s character, both lovely and insolent, is part tomboy (her flared jeans and simple white t-shirt are a look synonymous with Jane Birkin), part temptress (the crocheted white and black cover-ups are a perfect example of the innocent-sexy style Jane Birkin has become famous for), and she is the cause of the rapture that ensues between the characters.

But there is no doubt whose version of a woman is more alluring. In La piscine, Romy finally got rid of her acting beginnings as Empress Sissi. In front of Deray’s camera, in the company of Alain Delon’s insolent beauty and their tumultuous past relationship, and Maurice Ronet, her Marianne radiates a troubled and seductive sensuality. Both Romy and Delon were at the height of their beauty and youth – she was 30, he was 33 – in Deray’s film, and their passion for each other seems to have transformed into something much stronger and more powerful, and it is expressed in the images on screen much better than it could be in words.

It was Alain Delon who suggested to Jacques Deray (the two were at the beginning of their collaboration and they would end up making nine films together) to cast Romy in the role of Marianne, saying that he didn’t want anyone else for the part. When Romy joined Deray and Delon in Paris, the director reportedly declared that he found her “radiant but with a distant expression of sadness in her eyes”. He had found his Marianne. Marianne was Romy. That troubling sadness and overwhelming radiance are two qualities forever linked to Romy’s mystery and power of attraction. After the filming, Romy would write to Deray, expressing her gratitude for the opportunity to play a wonderful part and for finding her ambition again, and her hope that she had gotten the best out of her role. She would sign her letter, “Your Marianne, your Romy”.

La piscine was the film that did more than revive Romy’s career, it changed it for good, giving her the trust and courage she needed to explore her acting abilities. Claude Sautet visited Jacques Deray in the studio while editing the film and the rest, as they say, is history. Instantly won over by Romy’s fierce temper, he cast her in Les choses de la vie (1970). They would make four more films together and she would win the César award for her role in Une histoire simple (1978).

It’s not Romy’s body on display when the film opens. A tracking shot slowly glides over the water’s surface to Delon drowsing in peace under the blazing sun, dressed only in his skin-tight swim shorts, before Marianne awakens him. Delon is wearing his swim shorts in psychedelic or paisley prints whenever he’s by the pool. Even when he is in jeans and shirt, he is often barefoot. Never has bare skin appeared to conceal so much. Delon’s natural way of gliding through the frame is even more striking in his minimalist clothing against the shimmering swimming pool. And he is indeed reliant on his ability and physicality to seduce and satisfy Marianne, on whom he is about to become even more dependent, in more ways than one, as the events unfold. The occasional denim jacket or oversized chunky knitted sweater completes the look only on chilly nights.

As for Maurice Ronet’s Harry, he is the only one who is wearing dark shirts – undone to the navel and tucked in fitted trousers and a wide belt – even in daylight. Though clearly pointing to the events to come, his appearance also invests his character with another demeanor: it is coded as good quality, fashionable and wealthy, just like his Maserati (he is a successful music producer and one of the reasons for Delon’s discomfort around him). His shirts are more body-conscious, more tailored, more macho, whereas Jean-Paul’s writer – who has a hard time writing again, having taken an advertising job for the time being – are more loose, soft-textured and light-coloured, conveying a more relaxed and casual impression than that of Harry, reflective of his holiday mood, but also of his identity and social status. Harry never wears short sleeved shirts either, like Jean-Paul does. He prefers to roll up his shirts’ long sleeves, perhaps another sign of elevated elegance. Jean-Paul’s professional and financial shortcomings are further delineated by Harry when he asks him not to stay in the way of Marianne’s writing, for she is a writer, too, we learn, and a good one at that. Delon is at his most unsettling when he seems impassive on the surface, just like he was when Marianne told him about Harry’s imminent visit, when he was trying to keep his cool, yet his minimalist expressions capable, in mere seconds, of revealing a slight simmering tension.

As the thriller elements of the plot develop, Jean-Paul appears suited up, then in a camel suede jacket, white shirt and black trousers. The darker the plot gets, the more dressed Jean-Paul becomes, the more prim Marianne’s dresses are. In one of the last frames, we see them nestled by the window, held captive by the camera as they look outside, a safe distance from the pool, unable to break free from their present fortuity, locked in a delimited space, the guardians of their secret, existing just for each other.

This piece is published courtesy of classiq.me

Film stills courtesy of Evergreen Film Company Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC) and Tritone Cinematografica

Michael Boland cover art courtesy of The Criterion Collection

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