Deep End (1970)
Sorry to declare that like an edict right out of the blue, but I know what the reasons are; it hasn’t been talked about and hasn’t been around. This 1970 film by Jerzy Skolimowski (best known as co-writer of Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water) never found an audience at the time of its release and rights issues kept it off of the market for years. Deep End has been largely unseen for decades. Its undeveloped reputation is the reason that, when it finally was released on Blu-ray a few years back, there were no trumpets heralding the longed-for return of a classic. Or least none sounded that got to me; I only rented it because the packaging showed dripping blood and prominently mentioned that the soundtrack featured krautrock legends Can. I was expecting some middling 70’s euro-horror with a good soundtrack. Wow, were my expectations for Deep End wrong.
We meet 15 year-old Mike (John Moulder Brown) on his first day as a men’s public bath attendant in a working class neighborhood in London. He’s shown the ropes by women’s section attendant Susan (Jane Asher), a beautiful woman in her twenties to whom Mike is immediately attracted. In addition to explaining his duties, Susan also tells Mike that she’ll occasionally ask him to help with some of her customers, and that a polite, good-looking boy can make lots of tips by simply helping older women use their imagination. It’s not long before Mike finds himself trapped in a bathing cell with a middle-aged woman (Diana Dors) who, after making him undress her, overpowers him in the ecstatic throes of a soccer-related sexual fantasy.
Susan quickly escalates things, amusing herself by toying with his affections while making sure he’s firmly in her grasp. She teases him sexually and makes a point of berating Mike’s mother every time his parents visit the bath. Mike responds by stalking Susan and her fiancée (Chris Sandford), following her around London on his bike. He watches them argue outside of an X-rated movie theatre and follows them inside. Finding them seated separately due their argument, he sits behind her and proceeds to nuzzle and grope her. Susan has him arrested, a favor he passes on to her fiancée with an attempted molestation accusation. But when Mike discovers that Susan is also having an affair with one of his former teachers (Karl Michael Vogler), things spin out of control with tragic consequences.
As a psycho-sexual pot boiler, Deep End elicits a number of obvious but inaccurate comparisons. Eyes Wide Shut, Blue Velvet, The Piano Teacher, and Taxi Driver all come to mind at various moments throughout the film. These may be accurate for moments, but the trouble with drawing these parallels is that unlike any of these films, for all it’s drama Deep End is easy to identify with and often very funny. While it doesn’t play its material or characters for comedy, it succeeds because it creates an atmosphere often completely at odds with its disturbing content.
I mentioned the soundtrack earlier, and while Can’s presence is what drew me to the film (Skolimowski deploys their brilliant ‘Mother Sky’ during a sequence where Mike wanders through a neighborhood of strip clubs and brothels), it’s the other artist on the soundtrack that is most indicative of its atmosphere: Cat Stevens. With a winsome musical setting, striking design, empathy for adolescent confusion, and a bike-riding protagonist involved with an older woman, Deep End feels more like Rushmore or Harold and Maude than it does Repulsion.
Skolimowski and the uniformly excellent cast deserve equal credit for this mixture of familiarity and dangerous discomfort. The cast was allowed to improvise, bringing a loose quality to their dialogue. The chemistry feels unforced, and as twisted as the games that define Susan and Mike’s relationship become, they have their analog in play and flirtation. This makes their interactions fascinating to watch; for all its darkness, Deep End is keenly sensitive to gradations on the emotional spectrum of their disturbing friendship.
This awareness balances light and darkness for the majority of Deep End, and as a story of adolescence it understands how that this emerging sensitivity cuts in both directions. Mike’s awakening to pleasure and desire is also an awakening to the undercurrent of sleaziness and sexual menace in his world. Sexuality is treated as a complicated both/and, something that empowers and something that denigrates, an act you can profit from and an act that commodifies you, a force that pushes Mike towards adulthood and and a force that exposes him as a child, all at the same time. By highlighting these contradictions and oscillations within not only Mike but the rest of the characters, Skolimowski paints adolescence not as a complex passage into the state of adulthood but rather as a passage into a state of complexity, one that won’t be resolved, simplified, or completed. It’s Mike’s desire for resolution and clarification, not his desire for Susan, that ultimately brings the movie to its tragic conclusion.
While the film ends on a down note, it successfully pulls off its emotional juggling act long enough to keep it consistantly engaging and entertaining, and considering its content, that’s a remarkable achievement. How many films that approach sexual assault, voyeurism, gender power dynamics, lack of economic opportunity, and the nature of consent (among other things) can be described as endearing? Definitely not enough.
Deep End is available on Blu-ray and DVD at Amazon.