Blu-ray Review: La Piscine

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Jacques Deray | CAST: Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, Jane Birkin, Paul Crauchet, Suzie Jaspard, Maddly Bamy
RELEASE DATE: 7/20/21 | PRICE: DVD $15.01, Blu-ray $19.99
BONUSES: The English-language version of the film; “Fifty Years Later,” a 2019 documentary by Agnès Vincent-Deray; new interview with scholar Nick Rees-Roberts; archival footage featuring Delon, Birkin, Schneider, Ronet, and director Jacques Deray; alternate ending
SPECS: NR | 122 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.66:1 widescreen | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

Underneath the surface, the tension mounts. But to the casual observer, there’s nothing to see but an uncommonly attractive couple and their visitors — an urbane middle-aged gent and his teenage daughter. La Piscine is all about surface-level appearances being subtly altered by suppressed tension — until, in the final quarter, it turns from being a sharp (and quite gorgeous) character study into a more conventional policier.

The 1969 film has been doing quite well in reopened American arthouses, with good reviews and socially distanced crowds flocking to see it. Perhaps the film’s success is due to a viewership eagerly craving the kind of Euro-glamour and sensuality that peaked in the Sixties and found its most sublime incarnation in “star couples,” like the one found here, Romy Schneider (Ludwig) and Alain Delon (Purple Noon).

But it’s also likely that modern viewers are responding to the notion of a character study that takes its own sweet time and then finally explodes with a murder. As scripted by recently departed master screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Return of Martin Guerre) and directed by genre specialist Jacques Deray (best known for Delon and Belmondo vehicles), La Piscine is a glamorous concoction that consists of images of sexy, wealthy people who display affection for each other while harboring grudges.

In this way Piscine is closer to a British film, in that extreme emotions are suppressed and expressed only through glances — as opposed to Claude Chabrol’s quite similar work from the same period, in which the emotions of haute bourgeois characters were right on the surface. Here, the ensemble is small and their grudges deep-seated: a passionate couple (Schneider and Delon) have their vacation at a friend’s villa on the Côte d’Azur interrupted by the arrival of a good friend (Maurice Ronet, Elevator to the Gallows) — formerly involved with the woman — and his teen daughter (Jane Birkin, La Belle Noiseuse).

The film was adapted from a crime novel by the immensely talented Carriere, who collaborated over the years with a stunning array of European, Asian, and American directors. In a supplement here, Carriere notes that his role as scripter was to give the director something solid to work from — but to essentially leave things out that could be conveyed by the visuals. Given Deray’s workman-like approach in most of his other films, one does get the feeling watching La Piscine that all the right elements fell into the right place in the making of the picture.

In fact the first three-quarters are so good that one can excuse the pedestrian nature of the last quarter, where a police inspector (Paul Crauchet) enters to find out who among the guests is a murderer. At this point the film’s subtleties disappear and we are watching an interesting but not exceptional French crime feature.

The three supporting performers distinguish themselves admirably. Crauchet is all business as the police detective, while Birkin incarnates a “jailbait” figure (although it is stated that her character is 18 and the film was shot when she was 22) who seems put off by her playboy father. Playing that role, Ronet is an admirable “antagonist” whose character drives a wedge between the lead, lovestruck couple.

Romy Schneider and Alain Delon in La Piscine

As for that couple, they are the main attraction. Schneider and Delon were former real-life lovers, and Deray dotes throughout on the physical beauty of the couple and their attraction for each other.. They are persistently distracted by Ronet and Birkin, because they seem to believe their own love isn’t strong enough to last. All this is, again, communicated with glances rather than dialogue — but for the viewer whose mind might stray to more basic things, there are plenty of cheesecake/beefcake shots of Romy and Alain throughout.

La Piscine — presumably now given its French title to distinguish it from the 2003 Francois Ozon/Charlotte Rampling film — did well in arthouses around the world in 1969 but was a major hit in its home country. The reason was, of course, obvious — the reunion of two stars who were formerly lovers. This pure-gossip (leading to pure-box office) aspect is reflected in a reel of vintage interviews that is included in the package.

A French reporter joins Schneider and Delon (by that point married to other people) at the Saint-Tropez airport and quizzes them on how long it’s been since they’ve seen each other. A German interviewer is then shown asking Schneider about specific plot points in La Piscine, but also inquiring heavily about her current connection to Delon.

The German interviewer brings up another issue addressed in depth in this package — namely, that the film was shot simultaneously in French and English. The full English version is included on the disc, as well as the ending of the Spanish version of the film. The Spanish finale, which gives the film a more conventionally “moral” conclusion, is in the English version, but the Spanish version holds the shot a bit longer — it follows the last image of the French original, but indicates to audiences outside France that “justice has triumphed.”

In the only visual supplement created for this release, scholar Nick Rees-Roberts discusses the production design of the film, as well as the place the film has had in the worlds of fashion and cinema. Although Rees-Roberts slings some heavy-duty academic phrases (discussing “economic modernism” and “the bourgeois transformation of space”), his exploration of the film has some fascinating twists and turns.

He initially declares that the film is an interesting artifact of the late Sixties in that it distinctly avoids any mention of the politics that guided that period. He ties in the look of the film to earlier pictures that had depicted the South of France as a center of sexual liberation. (… And God Created Woman being the best example.) David Hockney’s 1960s California pool paintings are also shown as having a clear influence on the visuals.

Rees-Roberts discusses the leading fashion designers of the Sixties, focusing on André Courrèges, who designed Schneider’s garb for the film. As for Birkin, he notes that the costume coordinator (who was also the producer’s wife) asked her to bring her own clothing from home. He traces the influence of La Piscine as a film that has inspired advertisements, in addition to films that look like fashion ads (Diva, La Femme Nikita, the films of Tom Ford).

Most interesting in Rees-Roberts’ supplement is the inclusion of a 2009 TV ad for a Dior men’s fragrance called “Sauvage.” The ad is made up of poolside images of Delon from La Piscine, with Schneider strategically edited out.

A 2019 French video documentary contains interviews with the surviving participants. Jane Birkin discusses the fact that the film was shot as she was becoming involved with Serge Gainsbourg (who was incredibly jealous of her working with the picture-perfect Delon). She speaks of Delon as being especially kind to her — yet not romantically interested — but also declares that there was a “disturbing atmosphere” on the shoot.

Novelist Jean-Emmanuel Conil praises the film but feels it lost the point of his book (which had the two male leads coming from different classes). Carriere explains the film’s structure, saying that it is a claustrophobic tale “but outdoors.” He also notes that Deray wanted the latitude to “fill in” items in the script in his films, so Carriere gave him a complex screenplay that had only nine pages of dialogue, but among that small amount of talk were remarks that laid bare the characters’ past relationships.

A grey, bearded Delon offers the most stirring reflections on the film, noting that he demanded Schneider be his costar. (Monica Vitti was the choice of the producers and Deray.) He maintains that he made it a condition of his being in the film, remarking that Schneider’s career was stalled at that moment.

Delon seems proud of the film’s great success, but he declares with much gravity that, due to the premature deaths of Schneider, her son (who was present on the set of La Piscine) and Ronet that “I can’t watch it. It hurts too much.”

Buy or Rent La Piscine

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”