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Deep End

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
BFI Flipside
Art House
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Jerzy Skolimowski
Jane Asher
John Moulder-Brown
Karl Michael Vogler
Christopher Sandford
Diana Dors
Bottom Line: 
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The BFI’s Flipside label was launched last year with the aim of ‘rescuing weird and wonderful British films from obscurity and presenting them in new high-quality editions’. Well, frankly, even If the imprint were never to release another film, it would still have more than earned our eternal gratitude for bringing back to much-deserved prominence the poetic, understated, bitter-sweet masterpiece of adolescent longing that is Jerzy Skolimowski’s marvellous “Deep End”: a film that captures with uncommon lightness and a deftness and surety of touch the ambivalent landscape of Britain as it suffered through its post-sixties hangover, in a way that effortlessly transcends any period redundancy the setting could have lumbered it with for a contemporary audience. At its very heart, we witness two utterly compelling performances, by the young Jane Asher and the then relative newcomer John Moulder-Brown, being surrounded, supported and promoted in the work of a group of consummate professional filmmakers -- clearly operating at the peak of their respective games. Between them all, they achieved a piece of cinema back in 1970 that works well enough as a purely pleasurable piece of art – yet lies in wait with an unforgettable emotional punch in its final moments, all the same. It’s hard to believe such an assured and mesmerising film – even though recognised and critically acclaimed upon its release at the time – could have still fallen out of circulation for decades; caught up in a rights limbo, it’s been missed by a whole generation of cineastes who are now  sure to make up for lost time as they feast their eyes on this sumptuous-looking restored print, now available through the BFI’s duel-disc Blu-ray/DVD edition (there’s also a limited edition three-disc set containing an extra DVD interview with the film’s two stars): the Flipside has just been furnished with its first unambiguous masterpiece.

Polish writer-director Jerzy Skolimowski attended the prestigious Łódź National Film School during the same period as his countryman Roman Polanski in the early sixties. Around this time he co-scripted Polanski’s debut, “Knife in the Water,” along with the director himself and Jakub Goldberg, and he went on to direct a handful of well-respected films in his homeland. After leaving Poland to shoot a project in Belgium, Skolimowski ran into trouble with the Polish authorities on his return home, and his next film, “Hands Up” (1967), was banned -- forcing the director to look abroad for projects in order to continue his career. “Deep End” was Skolimowski’s third production outside the director’s native Poland, and the first of a run of films  --  which include the cult surrealist gem “The Shout”, starring Alan Bates, John Hurt and Susannah York --  that were to be set in Britain. Like Polanski’s “Repulsion” and Antonioni’s “Blow Up” his is very much a view of London that comes from an outsider’s perspective, taking an objective, fascinated and sometimes cynical view of its newfound ‘freedoms.’ While many such foreign directors were attracted to the capital when it became the centre of a pop cultural renaissance during the ‘high sixties’, Skolimowski’s film comes at the end of Harold Wilson’s premiership, just as the country was set to slide into the dark days of industrial strife marring Edward Heath’s Tory Government, and when the media’s manipulation of the ‘swinging’ phenomena seemed at its most questionable.

One of the things which is really remarkable about “Deep End” is the manner in which it manages almost subliminally and en passant to suggest these tacit emotions  and conflicted states of mind, exposing an England caught at a particularly uncertain cultural moment -- torn between attitudes that seem to date to well before the country’s cultural peak in the ‘60s and that were rooted more in the postwar period, and those born of the social revolution which came about directly as a result of the liberalising programme of Home Secretary Roy Jenkins after 1965, bringing with it the end of the death penalty and the legalization of abortion and homosexuality, and coinciding with the advent of the Pill and the rise of feminism. The film subtly and quirkily captures something of this wavering, place-specific mood, despite the fact that hardly any of it was actually shot in Britain, aside from a few key establishing scenes!

Although blessed by some brilliant casting in the lead roles, with the vivacious 23 year-old Jane Asher -- who had then only recently just ended a relationship with Paul McCartney -- and the charming young floppy-haired actor John Moulder-Brown, who’d just come off filming Maximillian Schell’s “First Love” (1969), a great deal of the film was shot on location in Munich with a German film crew and German actors in most of the supporting roles, all of whom were later post-dubbed in English. A few strategically placed British faces do crop up here and there -- including one instantly recognisable icon in the form of Diana Dors -- but this unusual production background is instrumental in giving the film its sublime, off-balance, not-quite-authentic tone, imbuing it with a vibe that merely highlights the displaced positioning of its director’s commentary on contemporary social mores but without toppling the film over into overt surrealism. Skolimowski spoke very little English himself at the time he wrote the script and so turned to two of his compatriots, Jerzy Grusza and the London-based Boleslaw Kulik, for help in knocking it into shape while he was living in Kensington during the post-production of his previous film. Even so, Asher has mentioned in subsequent interviews that she had to rewrite most of her dialogue herself every night, since the script she was presented with was in rather a mess in its original form. The screenplay was actually inspired by two news items taken from Polish newspapers at the time: one story was about a diamond being lost in the snow, and another about a fatal incident which occurred at a public swimming baths. Skolimowski used both these two scenarios at the climax of the film and then filled in the rest of the story -- trying to work back from them to explain how the events might have originally come about.

Set in London during the late sixties, the film at first assumes the aspect of a gentle, coming of age comedy-drama, slightly skewed with offbeat Polish humour. John Moulder-Brown is Mike: a painfully callow, awkward 15 year-old school leaver, embarking on his very first job at a public swimming baths where he is to be the new pool attendant in the Gents section. The manager and the premises itself both look like they’d have been more at home in the forties or fifties rather than at the end of this momentous decade of cultural change and social upheaval; Mike’s new boss wears a suit and angrily demands to be addressed as ‘Sir’ after the boy (innocently attempting affectation of a worldly, grownup demeanour) deigns to use the word ‘Guv’ instead. As he’s shown around the pool area and the bathing rooms by a bored-looking but gorgeous redheaded girl called Susan (Jane Asher), who’s to be his co-worker, we note that the establishment has certainly seen better days: the shabby corridors between the attendants’ box rooms and the Gents and Ladies bathing sections are painted a lurid green that is, bit by bit, peeling away, and the pool itself is surrounded by an old-fashioned balcony with ornately designed iron railings, lending it a rather faded, genteel-Edwardian image. Some sort of decoration or renovation project is underway though, and throughout the film we see painting materials and stepladders starting to clutter the site, and sections of the peeling walls are to be gradually made over in a vivid shade of canary yellow or, in one instance, bright scarlet.

Mike is very soon besotted with his foxy new co-worker, almost immediately executing a perfect pratfall into the swimming pool in her presence -- just as he’s being given the first-day-on-the-job guided tour and instruction session. From here on Mike’s encounters with the swimming pool will always be associated with his idealised image of Susan in fantasy underwater sequences that play like an attempt to escape the complicated reality and messiness of concrete male-female relationships. Much as the cover image of Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” depicted an underwater baby, blissfully cut-off from the confusions of everyday life (but being tempted out of its swimming pool heaven by the promise of a dollar bill) so Mike’s eroticised flashes of fantasy skinny-dipping with the unreachable Susan take on an ever-more unrealistic and (literally at one point) two dimensional aspect: Mike’s awkward, virginal ideas of romance and femininity are associated with old-fashioned notions of maternal purity which cut no ice with Susan, who is a product of the sixties in that she aspires to a sexually liberated cool, while listlessly conforming to still quite prominent and conservative societal notions of marriage despite her evidently antagonistic relationship with her prosaically boorish fiancé (played by Christopher Sandford of Pete Walker’s “Die Screaming Marianne”).

Susan’s spiky personality is a mass of contradictions, displaying a constant tension between newly established permissive codes of the day and the family-set traditions of the past -- all of which only serve to further confuse the adolescent longings of the lovelorn teen now in her thrall. On the one hand Susan can seem quite ‘homey’ -- making colourful, strange-looking stuffed toys in her spare time to fill the long hours of boredom during working hours. Her attendant’s box-room is filled with them, lending it the cutesy atmosphere of a child’s nursery and further emphasising her apparent commitment to conventional married life. On the other hand, Mike is distraught to discover that Susan is also having sex with his old school sport’s teacher (who leeringly oversees weekly swimming lessons with a class of gigglesome schoolgirls) and she is disdainful when his parents visit him at work, dismissing him as a mummy’s boy and sulking off in the attendant’s room while he shows them around his workplace; when the excited Mike later asks Susan to give his Mum “the full treatment” in the women’s section, she responds with ‘ I’d tell her alright … your Mum is a cow!’ Mike is perplexed and hurt by this unprovoked aggression, and his awkward attempt to hit back (‘Your Mum’s a bloody cow!’) is easily thwarted with the reply: ‘she can’t be … she’s dead.’ Alongside this antagonistic attitude to the maternal strait-jacket Mike, in her eyes, unwittingly tries to foist upon her, it soon also becomes quite obvious to the viewer that Susan is cynically pimping Mike out to any of the pool’s middle-aged lady clients who might require the services of ‘an obliging young boy’ -- having him swap sections with her so that she can indulge in her illicit assignations with Mike’s former teacher, while he fends off advances from rampant vamps proffering extra tips for certain kinds of favours.

This is where the film begins to self-consciously flit around the edges of a more traditional, distinctive strain of British humour which was often to be found in movies like the popular “Carry On …” series at that time – a saucy postcard-style kinkiness, heavily reliant on innuendo for its effects, in scenes which anticipate the sexual mores of the 1970s as filtered through the kinds of attitudes often displayed in the many British sex comedies of the decade (about the only section of the British film industry that could be relied on to make money by that time). Skolimowski imbues the material with an unsettling twist of surrealism grounded in his acute outsider’s awareness of the importance that certain feted cultural icons of style and fashion had achieved the Britain by this period, and their influence on the perception and consumption of male and female sexualities during the sixties’ heyday. The key scene in this regard involves Diana Dors -- by now a screen presence of ample figure -- who fits snugly into the role of sexually avaricious matron who preys on the insignificant, weak male (a common comedy motif of the “Carry On …” film series). England’s “Blonde Bombshell” was immensely popular in the 1950s as Britain’s answer to Marylyn Monroe, and Skolimowski cast her as a symbol of his own adolescent sexual awakening, to which she apparently contributed a great deal! The scene between the hapless Mike and she, now a plump, middle-aged predator with a piled blonde beehive, starts out as cheeky ‘nudge-nudge’ initiation-seduction, as she induces the gauche lad to remove and unbutton more and more of her clothes, until he finally draws the line at her brassiere and hastily departs. Later she feigns a faint as she’s leaving the bath, forcing Mike back into the room, whereupon she involves him in a bizarre sexual fantasy based on George Best (the hugely famous football player for Manchester United who became a sex-symbol and role model in the sixties) that turns from amusing comedy sketch into a slightly disturbing near assault, with Dors, sweaty and orgasmic, clouting the boy as she reels off football-related innuendo after innuendo on the subject of “slamming balls into nets” (‘he just glided it in, it slid in … so slowly’).    

The quirkiness, the oddball slightly skewwhiff humour, and the shambling charm displayed in John Moulder-Brown’s likable portrayal of Mike and his hopeless infatuation with the difficult Susan, is crystallised in a scene that was actually improvised by the two performers, using the famous Saatchi & Saatchi pregnant man poster. The sequence primarily illustrates Susan’s flirtatious side surfacing as she playfully teases the hapless boy for blushing when they’re together; but she also makes fun of him, symbolically emasculating him by tearing the face from one of the posters that are being pasted up around the corridors of the pool (‘It’s defacing Government property’ says Asher in an improvised line) and forcing Mike’s head into the gap. This famous advertising image, produced for the Health Education Council in order to challenge preconceptions about male and female responsibilities towards contraception, is also another nod to the emergence and importance of marketing, image and style and the power of advertising in the sixties, especially in shaping and shifting attitudes towards sex and gender politics.

Unfortunately, poor old Mike is confused enough already by Susan’s behaviour, so when he follows her and her obnoxious fiancé into the kaleidoscopic world of London’s nightlife, his lovelorn befuddled state is soon diverted onto a dangerous path by her complicity in his plight -- her toying with his emotions out of both her own boredom and a growing awareness of her sexual power. Clad in the regulation sixties dolly bird uniform of white go-go boots, bright yellow ankle-length plastic mac and miniskirt, Susan aspires to live up to the carefree, liberated image which supposedly  defined the era, yet her profound boredom and irritation when her fiancé takes her to see an X certificate porn film for their night out is palpable. Mike follows the couple and positions himself behind Susan while some ridiculous contrived sexy shenanigans play out on screen (the film they are all watching, “The Science of Sex”, is both a pastiche and an accurate representation of the kind of “erotic” fare that might well be found in cinemas at the time – a pseudo-documentary that purports to be educational, and which at one point illustrates the concept of female frigidity with an image of a naked woman in a fridge!). The sequence once again shifts between comedy and discomfort as Mike, in a daydream facilitated by the darkened cinema and the licentious images on the screen, begins fondling Susan’s breast from behind while she sits with her utterly oblivious fiancé. Susan lets him continue for some time -- well aware of the identity of the groper -- then delivers him a hefty whack in the face and informs her partner that there’s some pervert here feeling her up! But then, while the shaken fiancé is dutifully off informing the manager, Susan gives Mike a passionate kiss on the lips in the darkness. The rest of the scene plays out as pure comedy, with Susan manipulating the situation for her own amusement and Mike on cloud nine and not giving a damn about the consequences; but this is also the beginning of the boy’s infatuation turning to obsession and delusion as he desperately tries to make sense of Susan’s inconstant attitude towards him, to understand the parameters of their relationship. His later discovery at work of her infidelity towards not just himself but her fiancé as well (after he finds her making out with the swimming teacher in the female attendant’s box room), sends him on a bizarre jaunt through Soho at night (after earning his first pay packet of his working life), when he trails her to a trendy nightclub nestled among the strip clubs and clip joints of the seedy side of the West End, where she and her fiancé go to celebrate the purchase of a diamond engagement ring.

Up to this point, Skolimowski has peppered events with strategically placed snippets of uplifting melodic acoustic rock by singer-songwriter Cat Stevens, in a soundtrack designed to encompass the carefree innocence and passion of the young protagonist in a series of delicately wrought vignettes, shot with consummate care by cinematographer Charly Steinberger on Steady-cam mimicking hand-held cameras, to capture a certain tonal realism while declining documentary, vérité similitude. But in the funny, surreal, intense and fraught long dark night of the soul that comprises the following Soho section of the movie, he turns instead to those arch purveyors of metronomic drone-rock psychedelia, the cult Krautrock outfit known as Can -- for an extended 14 minute regimented wig-out that accompanies the ever-darkening mood way down low on its journey into a woozy dream pit of Peter Blake-inspired cardboard cut-out surrealism. This highly art directed film (vibrantly facilitated by Max Ott and Anthony Pratt) has mainly, until this middle section, sought to contrive a sense of a placid postwar Britain in messy collision with the dayglow pop art colour schemes of the sixties dream, with recourse to mesmerising primary colour-bound symbolism and an elaborate display of objects used as visual rhymes (which only really become noticeable on a second viewing, so subtly is it elaborated). Key colours recur again and again throughout in a variety of circumstances, and their significance can only be known once Mike really has gone off the ‘deep end’ -- both literally and figuratively -- during the film’s spellbinding closing moments. The colour yellow is a constant reminder of the allure of Susan’s fashionable contemporary stylishness, cropping up in the swimming bath’s new décor and again during Mike’s frantic trawl through Soho when he shadows Susan and her fiancé to the trendy nightclub. This time the vivid colour is highlighted in isolation on a single wall of an alley nearby, to which Mike returns after his various mini adventures among the denizens of the West End for sundry hot dogs from street vendor Burt Kwouk – this lengthy sequence’s constantly recurring comedy interaction section.

The delirium induced by the coming together of Mike’s callow fantasy image of Susan and an equally false product of the cynical marketing of contemporary female identity is brought to its fullest mode of expression when, while waiting for Susan and her fiancé to emerge from the club, Mike discovers a life-sized black & white cardboard cut-out of a stripper outside one of the sleazy Soho clubs. Although the strip club hawker refers to her by the name ‘Angelica’, and attempts to beckon Mike inside his establishment to observe her at her work, the image seems clearly to be that of Susan -- frozen in an exotic topless pose, displaying a haughty, glassy-eyed supermodel pout. Mike steals the cut-out image and attempts to secrete it inside a doorway that turns out to be the red light-lit hallway of a prostitute who, in a typical piece of Jerzy whimsy, has her right leg completely encased in a plaster cast. The room -- wallpapered in a colourful collage of trippy images -- is jerry-rigged with an elaborate pulley system in order to enable this corset & suspender-clad Madame to open and close doors or lower the needle (weighted with a cutesy plastic doll) onto her portable Dansette  -- whereupon Can get to strike up their pulsing rendition of ‘Mother Sky’ once more. Here the fashionable allure of football as a basis for masculinity is re-established as a theme when it turns out that the Madame has the autograph of Mike’s favourite West Bromwich Albion player on her cast (presumably one of her past clients?) and she tempts him over with it in order to snatch the cardboard cut-out (she also recognises it as being an image of someone called Angelica) and lay it over herself, offering herself up as a proxy for the boy’s true desires in an warped echo of Susan’s layering of the pregnant man poster across Mike in the earlier improvised sequence.

Absconding through garishly lit streets with his cardboard symbol of unreachable yet wanton female sexuality, Mike eventually tracks Susan (who has had a row with her fiancé and gone home alone) to the London Underground, confronting her on the crowded train with the stark image -- threatening to show it to both her finance and her lover; demanding for her to confirm it actually is her. Interestingly, Susan’s indifferent reaction to it offers no evidence at all that it is: ‘I suppose it looks a bit like me,’ is her vague response. ‘But it is you! It is you, isn’t it?’ Say’s Mike. Then:  ‘But you’re not like that?’ he almost pleads to himself. ‘Oh, I’m much worse than that!’ Susan can’t resist teasing. Although Jane Asher clearly is the model in the cut-out, the film remains ambiguous about whether or not we the audience are meant to interpret the figure as a representation of Susan, or just a surreal symbol of Mike’s inability to reconcile the various conflicting aspects of the love object’s allure for him. He takes the cardboard figure back to the unlit, deserted baths and swims with it after leaping naked from the diving board, clutching it to his chest as we see the two-dimensional figure assume the proportions of a rigid, naked Susan in Mike’s fantasies once again, until the cardboard at last disintegrates into a papery mush upon his surfacing.

The film’s final section elaborates metaphorically on Mike’s inability to discern between the ‘purity’ of his own preferred form of rarefied fantasy, and the marketed image of permissive freedom under which Susan has been attempting to negotiate her own sense of identity. Susan turns up at the school race day meeting being organised by the school teacher she’s been having a dalliance with, and Mike gate-crashes the event (held on a typically snow-bound winter’s day) as a pretext for his taking a meagre form of revenge on at least one of his two rivals for Susan’s attentions by placing broken milk bottles beneath two of Sir’s car tyres. Susan angrily tussles with Mike in the snow when she discovers the prank, and loses both her temper and the diamond from her engagement ring in the process of clouting him. Mike realises that the transparent mineral will be impossible to find now amongst the expanse of snow all over the ground, and so he hits on an elaborate scheme to find it by marking a circle around Susan that defines the area the diamond must have fallen in, heaping all the rapidly discolouring snow into plastic bags and carting it back to the swimming pool. The original idea may have been to melt the snow in the water of the pool, revealing the true diamond in a metaphorical recapitulation of Mike’s ultimate belief in the dream-like feminine purity of his underwater fantasy Susan. But the Swimming pool has been drained for the weekend and is now completely empty. Instead, Mike tries to bond with Susan by concocting an even more elaborate scheme, enticing her to help him boil the filthy slush in a kettle from the manager’s office that’s been rigged up to the descending pool lights, and to strain it through a pair of her tights. A confrontation with Susan’s (now confused and angry) schoolteacher lover, who turns up to berate her for the damage to his car’s tyres as though she were just another of his errant pupils (‘serves me right for messing around with kids,’ he mutters under his breath), finally unleashes a torrent of supressed angst from the girl that complicates our, up till now, rather unflattering image of her as a shameless tease, as we begin to realise that the hidden hypocrisies of contemporary male-female interactions have made her as much their victim as the befuddled Mike.

It’s all building to a beautifully played, subtly surreal finale (a drained swimming pool is an unsettling, almost uncanny site of action, as JG Ballard has frequently noted) that is tragic, disturbing, and yet hauntingly poetic. The astute observe will note here all the many visual references and colour-coded symbolisms that have been subliminally planted throughout the film coming home to roost in the failed intimacy between Susan and Mike after the boy finds the diamond but realises Susan will go home to her fiancé and think nothing of their shared moments: the whistling kettle and its dangling flex, the descending lights above the pool, earlier seen being played with by a the group of louts who push Mike in and thereby induce the first of his fantasy pool encounters with his dream version of Susan; the colour red that defines objects such as Mike’s bike and the teacher’s car or a fire extinguisher at the baths, as well as a cut finger or the decorators’ pots of paint, but most of all recalling a sequence in which one of the decorators paints a sea-green wall in a corridor blood red in the background of the shot during an ostensibly comic scene between Susan and the middle-aged pool receptionist: all anticipate and forewarn what is about to occur, just as the emissions of a fire extinguisher, the  spilt milk from the broken milk bottles, the snow in the park and the white sheets tangled with Susan’s plastic yellow mac spread in the drained pool, all seem connected in a nexus of symbolic reference to a silent love scene between the two young people – played out in a series of static close-up shots with Susan stretched out rigid -- like a shop window dummy or Angelica the cardboard cut-out figure -- on the bottom of the empty swimming pool, and Mike ultimately unable to find an adequate connection between his fantasy life and the physical reality of his obsessions. The final image is particularly apposite and haunting given all the layered symbolism beforehand. Originally, the ending was to have been entirely different -- and there are echoes of it still, in visual rhymes concerning cracked mirrors or broken fire alarms and smashed milk bottles, that consequently fail to find their payoff because the scene was -- correctly -- deleted in favour of what is actually the fullest, most powerful expression of the film’s key image of desire and unfulfilled longing.

In the end, the amazing performances of the two leads and the aesthetic perfection still discernable in the film’s harmony of artistic expression, achieved through an exquisitely choreographed synchronisation of costume design, art direction and photography, all come together to produce an affecting, confident portrait of awkward adolescence and social transition which becomes far more than just the sum of its parts. It’s a classic piece of work and destined to be much revered now that Bavaria Media have produced what is an outstanding restoration that results in the film looking blindingly vivid and almost brand new. BFI have, of course, produced a wonderful disc, which features a DVD copy of the movie as well as the Blu-ray version and an excellent booklet of poster art, stills and interesting essays -- one on the film by Jim Thompson and another looking at the permissive culture the film evokes in a piece by Yvonne Tasker. A profile of Jerzy Skolimowski by Ewa Fowler and a short piece on “Careless Love”, the grim ten minute short also starring Jane Asher which is included on the disc, written by its director Francine Winham, are also included, as is a short piece on Can’s fourteen minute opus ‘Mother Sky’ by William Fowler.  The most important extra of all though is a 74 minute ‘making of’ documentary commissioned by Bavaria Media which interviews the director and many of the key members of the cast and crew in a film that takes the normal from-script-to-screen-to-reception structure of many such features, but builds the whole piece around Asher and Moulder-Brown’s first meeting since they originally starred together in the film in the late sixties, and cinematographer Charly Steinberger revisiting the original locations in Munich and at Leytonstone baths. An extra 12 minute feature on deleted scenes could have been made a part of the original documentary but is included here as a separate featurette instead, and consists of the participants talking about cut scenes (all of which have since been lost) and some of the ideas originally written for the screenplay but never filmed, with discussion and explanations given as to the reasons for their removal.

A marvellous film, an excellent HD transfer for Blu-ray and an assured and essential crop of superb extras makes this an unmissable release from the BFI’s Flipside collection.

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