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Sometimes venue does matter: watching La Piscine in Central Park

9 Jun

La Piscine starring Romy Schneider and Alain Delon

I’ve been living on the East Coast for two years now, but only at the beginning of this year did I really begin to appreciate New York City as a place to enjoy films.  I cannot believe the availability of films there are and the choice of venues I now have at my disposal.  I had almost fallen out of love with why I loved film in the first place but thanks to New York, I have a whole new appreciation of film.  Now that isn’t to say watching films at home, on Netflix, or at your local multiplex isn’t fine because it truly is; I just feel guilty that I wasted an entire year with so many resources only a short train-ride away.  Obviously, a great film, or even just an okay film stands on its own wherever you watch it.  If you’re stuck in a trailer park in New Mexico, then you can still be transported away to wherever you’d like by inserting a DVD or turning on your television or streaming a film from the internet.  But if you have the opportunity to experience film in a special setting, there is something slightly magical that happens, it adds to the entire cinematic experience.  Why do you think all those old dream palaces were built in the 1920s and 1930s?  While many of them have been demolished, and film culture changes as technology evolves, there is still something to be said for leaving your dwelling and going out to watch films in a group of people.

A friend of mine posted a “Films on the Green Festival” on her Facebook page which I happened to see and I noticed the first film screened would be the Romy Schneider/Alain Delon film La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969).  I am a huge Romy Schneider fan, not only because I’m named after her (yes, I’m aware my name is spelled with an “i” instead of a “y” because my mother forgot how to spell her name when I was born), but because she’s a great actress and she’s gorgeous.  I used to actually stay home from school to watch old Romy Schneider films when they were on.  Thankfully, my mother was willing to call in to school for me and claim illness for the sake of my cinematic education (those were the days before VCRs and DVRs when things could not be so easily recorded).  So most of my Romy Schneider film viewing experience took place on television screens with bad dubbing and atrocious film editing for television.  So, for me, to see a Romy Schneider movie in French (with English subtitles since my French isn’t that great), on a big screen, is a rare treat.  To see it in Central Park at night was actually almost — magical.

I’m not going to pretend La Piscine is a cinematic masterpiece.  Honestly, it isn’t.  It’s a bit long.  It’s a bit… cheesy.  And quite frankly, the first time I watched it, which was dubbed on DVD, I was unimpressed and a bit bored.  Jacques Deray has been called the French Hitchcock, and I’m honestly not familiar enough with his work to agree with or contest that label but I can say that La Piscine is certainly no Vertigo.  It might be more like Hitchcock’s  Marnie in that on the surface the film feels a bit clunky and forced but the ending is about – twisted love and affection.

The main question for the film is:  how far would you go for someone you love.  For Marianne (Romy Schneider), that would be covering up the murder of Harry (Maurice Ronet) by Jean-Paul (Alain Delon).  On some level, it’s hard to understand why Marianne loves Jean-Paul, but if you gaze at Alain Delon long enough, that honestly seems like enough reason.  It helps to know that Romy Schneider and Alain Delon were a real life couple.  They never did marry but had a very popular relationship in the 1960s.  Think Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner.  As in real life, Alain Delon’s character cannot keep it in his pants and sets out to seduce, Penelope, an 18 year old virgin, the daughter of Harry, Marianne’s former lover.  As an aside, to view Maurice Ronet at his finest, watch Louis Malle’s early effort, one of my favorite films, Elevator to the Gallows.

The narrative of this film certainly is not fast-paced.  It drags a bit, but in defense of the overall feel of the film, it reflects the setting, a lazy summer holiday in France.  Just like the days at a villa, all actions are drawn out and amplified since a trip into town to get provisions might be the highlight of one’s day, that is, after having a great deal of sex in and directly next to the swimming pool, which Marianne and Jean-Paul seem to do, daily.  As they hit a rough patch in their sex life and also their relationship, Harry appears on the scene, with his very strange daughter, Penelope, who nobody seems to know existed before this particular visit.

While Marianne is self-assured and sexual, Penelope is demure and chaste.  If Marianne inspires lust and desire in both Jean-Paul and Harry, Penelope serves to remind everyone that Marianne might somehow be damaged goods and both men, Harry and Jean-Paul, tend to gravitate equally toward lust with Marianne and pureness with Penelope.  And it is the coupling of Jean-Paul and Penelope that leads to the eventual breakdown of the foursome having any chance at a harmonious holiday together.  This is ironic since Harry and Penelope are the interlopers, they don’t belong at the villa, they show up and because Marianne is annoyed with Jean-Paul, she invites them to stay.  Marianne’s sexual and emotional frustration with Jean-Paul at that moment in the narrative, touches off a chain of events which will eventually lead to Harry’s death at Jean-Paul’s hands — in the swimming pool.

The swimming pool itself is the center of sexual desire and death, the water being the main symbolic attribute that attracts swimming, sex and murder.  Marianne is constantly dressed for swimming or wearing clothes that signal she’s just been in the pool.  We all know what happens in that pool as the opening scene illustrates what Marianne and Jean-Paul’s days most likely entail lounging about, having sex, eating, fighting, existing.  The dynamics of the pool change once Harry and Penelope arrive.  Suddenly, the pool is no longer intimate.  It’s not only a place where Jean-Paul and Harry tend to challenge one another for dominance (they even have a race), it’s a place where Penelope refuses to enter.  When Penelope does sleep with Jean-Paul, it occurs, ‘in the sea,’ a more natural place, less streamlined and constructed.  This hard-edged, man-made creation, the swimming pool, also reflects Marianne’s character (she is a former mistress of Harry’s, a former lover of many, she isn’t daunted by any man or situation in the film).  Marianne’s edges are hard, she won’t be intimidated, not even when she knows her lover sleeps with Penelope.  And Penelope, who is linked with the sea and the natural, is the one whose inability to control her emotions after sex brings down the entire party’s ability to function on an adult, civilized level.  It is also Jean-Paul’s inability to chose between the women and their natures that leads to disaster.  His character is stuck between his desire for the whore (Marianne) and the virgin (Penelope).  This is symbolically illustrated in the shot above, his body is squarely between the swimming pool, associated with Marianne in the foreground, and the sea, associated with Penelope in the background.

Instead of controlling their emotions, all the characters, especially the men, lose control on some level.  Harry goes out drinking and comes home so drunk he can’t properly fight off Jean-Paul’s fury.  The drowning scene is one of the most protracted death-scenes I’ve ever witnessed.  At times, you can’t be sure that Harry’s really going to drown as he makes many attempts to exit the pool; however, just as Harry allows himself to be lost in his desire for Marianne, he eventually succumbs to Jean-Paul’s murderous embrace of death.

Had I not seen this film in Central Park, I honestly probably wouldn’t have thought so much more about it.  I wouldn’t have delved deeper into the narrative and characters, the desires and downfalls, and thanks to one chilly evening, I actually ended up enjoying a film I had been initially unimpressed with.  So, the moral of this post:  sometimes venue does matter.

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