Côte Désir: Alain Delon and Romy Schneider lust away in
Jacques Deray’s 1969 feature.
La Piscine, directed by Jacques Deray, Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, New York City, through May 27, 2021
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Sunstroked and sex-soaked, Jacques Deray’s La Piscine, a French Riviera–set tale of high-stakes hedonism originally released in 1969, offers, among its many sensuous pleasures, multiple studies of blue. There is the cerulean of the Mediterranean and the aqua of the swimming pool of the title, part of a luxe villa high up in the hills overlooking Saint-Tropez, where most of the film’s action takes place. Most voluptuously, there are the hues of the eyes of Alain Delon (sapphire) and Romy Schneider (beryl), who play Jean-Paul and Marianne, the central couple of a sybaritic foursome. Blue is the hottest color.
Obscenely beautiful, Jean-Paul and Marianne, together for two years, are spending their summer holidays at the opulent estate, lent to them by friends traveling in India. We learn, about halfway through this two-hour movie, that they are members of the creative class. She’s a journalist; he’s an advertising executive, a profession he took up after too many years as a failed novelist. It’s impossible, though, to imagine them devoting even one minute to anything besides their true vocation: arousing lust, jealousy, and other extreme emotions in the other.
Half-naked, fully turned on, the two generate so much erotic heat that the Côte d’Azur, during the weeks of filming, must have seen record-high temperatures. (Delon and Schneider, lovers from 1958 to 1963, likely relied on sense memories for their intimate scenes. They remained close after they split; Delon insisted to Deray that his ex be cast opposite him.) As they bake in the sun or lounge in bed, the camera besottedly rests on each actor, slowly zooming in on Delon as he lies supine poolside in the movie’s opening scene or, later, panning languorously up Schneider’s body. The couple’s sexcation is interrupted—or, more accurately, complicated—by the unexpected arrival of two guests: music producer Harry (Maurice Ronet), a friend of Jean-Paul’s since their adolescence and a former flame of Marianne’s, and Harry’s eighteen-year-old university-student daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin).
The second they emerge from Harry’s Maserati Ghibli—his flashy car merely one example of his pathetic attempts to deny his encroaching middle age—father and daughter add a sinister element to the lubricious ambience. Contests of one-up(wo)manship are waged. Harry and Marianne outrageously flirt. Jean-Paul is determined to seduce Penelope, not only to even the score with Marianne but also to cuckold Harry, who perversely treats his offspring, whom he had neglected for her entire life until recently, more as his girlfriend.
These narcissists love to watch and be watched. Marianne thrills at the thought of Penelope observing her hosts doing it al fresco; the teenager becomes transfixed as she witnesses her goatish dad ogle Marianne. The fierce competition, which inevitably leads to violence, between the two men over the two women has tinges of displaced homoeroticism, a dynamic not too dissimilar from that shared by the characters Delon and Ronet played in Purple Noon, Réné Clément’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley.
Although Marianne and Penelope regrettably ignite no sapphic sparks, the stark contrast between the actresses portraying them exerts its own libidinal fascination. Schneider, an Austro-Gallic superstar then at about the midpoint of her career (which ended with her death, at age forty-three, in 1982), exudes such feline, slinky amour propre that any of her actions, such as a costume change from bikini to maillot, constitutes a major event. A Swinging London scenester, Birkin enhances Penelope’s feyness with her aggressively Anglo-accented French and gangly movements. Twenty-one at the time of filming, Birkin, like Sissy Spacek in 1976’s Carrie, possesses the supernatural gift to appear simultaneously much younger and older than the age of her character.
Deray’s best-known film, La Piscine was remade in 2015 by Luca Guadagnino as A Bigger Splash (a title that evinces another kind of repurposing, lifting the name of both a 1967 David Hockney painting and a 1974 quasi-documentary about the artist). Guadagnino ditched Saint-Tropez for Pantelleria, a volcanic island off the coast of Italy, but closely re-created the original’s febrile, intergenerational love quadrangle. Yet he marred his pulpy sex thriller with a tonally disastrous bid at topical relevance, inserting a plot thread indicting Europe’s response to the migrant crisis.
No such gravid grandstanding taints Deray’s version. Filmed in September and October 1968, La Piscine so seductively presents a microcosm of pampered egocentrics that the demonstrations that nearly brought France to a halt a few months prior seem as distant as the trial of Joan of Arc. But real-life events—contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the making of La Piscine—involving two of its principal cast members heighten the movie’s licentious appeal. On October 3, police arrived on the set to question Delon about the murder, still unsolved, of his bodyguard Stevan Marković, whose corpse had been found in a dump outside Paris two days before. The “Marković affair” would soon include allegations of sex parties attended by the actor and Claude Pompidou, the wife of the soon-to-be-elected president. (More tarnishing infamy resulted in 2013 when Delon announced his support for France’s far-right party, now called the National Rally. Dubbed the “the male Brigitte Bardot” in the ’60s, Delon and that former sex symbol are still linked, well into their senescence, by their shared ardor for Marine Le Pen, the National Rally’s leader.)
Earlier in ’68, Birkin filmed Slogan with Serge Gainsbourg, a project that marked the beginning of their creative and romantic partnership; for a decade-plus they reigned as France’s premier libertine couple. The month after La Piscine opened in France, Birkin and Gainsbourg released their two most salacious singles, “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” punctuated by her orgasmic sighs, and “69 année érotique.” Neither song is heard in La Piscine, which is scored by Michel Legrand and features two square pop numbers with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. But they nonetheless echoed in my head as I watched Deray’s movie, providing a phantom soundtrack to this carnal feast.
Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns.