four hundred and twenty seven

Watch IN BED: La Piscine

Words by Joe Brennan

It was a morning flight to Paris-Orly Airport that first drew Romy Schneider and Alain Delon together. En route to the set of Christine (1958), the arrivals gate provided the backdrop for their meet-cute, a rendezvous which led to a five year love affair played out in the French tabloids. Their starry coupling—the Viennese actress and the matinee idol from Hauts-de-Seine—abruptly ended in 1963 with a curt letter from Delon in the mail.

Though they had salvaged a friendship, it would take another five years before they were reunited onscreen. Shot in the August heat of 1968, La Piscine brought the pair to an elaborate Ramatuelle villa not far from the parasols of Saint-Tropez. Though director Jacques Deray had offered the role to Angie Dickinson and Delphine Seyrig, it was Delon who insisted that Romy Schneider be cast as his sun-bronzed lover. And so the two reanimated their former love affair poolside, somewhere between the Ingo Maurer lighting fixtures and a breezy Michel Legrand score.

The inspiration behind Luca Guadagnino’s quasi-remake A Bigger Splash (2015), La Piscine follows holidaying couple Jean-Paul (Delon) and Marianne (Schneider) whose tense relationship is marked by equal parts malaise and clammy carnality. Their secluded idyll is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Marianne’s one-time beau Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his young daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin, in her first French film).

What follows is a taut melodrama of sexual jealousy and animal instincts as the unlikely quartet begin circling each other in some cognac-spiked game of cat and mouse, or mice. Dressed in custom André Courrèges swimsuits, Schneider’s impossibly relaxed confidence makes a spectacular impression on the audience and the suitably wide-eyed Birkin. Both languorous and agitated, her deft performance brings a glimmer of humanity to a world of chic layabouts accustomed to indulgence without consequence. These are sophisticates who revel in a recklessly aloof approach to love that will ultimately be their undoing—a generation whose bubble is close to bursting.

Handsome and vaguely homicidal, her male companions are likewise caught up in a level of leisurely excess that seems to smother their very morality. Lounging in the modernist production design of Paul Laffargue, it’s hard to blame them. This is hedonism endorsed beyond questions of right and wrong. As the set’s centrepiece, the titular swimming pool is the ultimate site of this tension. Does one float seductively in la piscine simply to relax or as a calculated ploy? At what point does the pursuit of pleasure stop being a virtuous enterprise? All bodies of water can find a way to churn from placidity to something violent.

Handsome and vaguely homicidal, her male companions are likewise caught up in a level of leisurely excess that seems to smother their very morality.

What is certain is that there are few more enjoyable activities than watching a handful of French stars abandon their scruples in the sun. A cinematic vacation that’s kept its overheated appeal some fifty years from its first release, Deray’s slow-burn chamber piece remains radiant. Its summery shocks have also stayed ripe, slick with a gloomy ambiguity that defies the film’s gleaming surface. Like Schneider and Delon’s own meta-entanglement, these still waters run deep.