A scorching French thriller is a “smash hit”
Over the past 14 weeks at the Film Forum, a long-running independent and repertory theater on Manhattan’s West Houston Street, the 1969 French film La Piscine has aired – a run that extended its original engagement by 12 weeks, and it continues.
Rear window, 8 1/2, La Strada and a popular Humphrey bogart the series that included Casablanca have all come and gone, but La Piscine is swimming.
If there is one New York summer 2021 movie, this might be it.
La Piscine (which means La Piscine) revolves around Jean-Paul (played by Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider), who have retired to a house with a large swimming pool outside of Saint-Tropez.
Unfortunately, he only has a month’s vacation. The lovers are unexpectedly joined by Harry (Maurice Ronet), Marianne’s former lover and Jean-Paul’s former best friend, and her 18-year-old daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin). It follows a great decadence and an extremely French crossed love.
Of course, pool life is not what it seems. (If you’re someone with strong opinions on spoiler alerts for 50-year-old French films, skip the rest of this paragraph.) Tensions mount and in the last half hour, Jean-Paul coldly murders Harry by slow, brutal drowning. . After one of the most chic funeral scenes undertaken in the cinema, Marianne covers Jean-Paul with the police, despite the fact that Jean-Paul had just declared his desire to leave her for Pénélope.
Sex, opulence, a hint of danger. What better way to describe New York’s post-containment vibe? And then there’s the epic style: Come for Alain’s open navel denim shirt, stay for Romy’s Courrèges swimsuits. It turns out that many New Yorkers did.
“It’s a resounding success,” said Bruce Goldstein, director of repertoire programming for Film Forum and founder of Rialto Pictures, which distributes La Piscine in the United States. “The numbers haven’t gone down at all. We have touched all nerves with this.
Ah, yes, those nerves. After more than a year of pandemic restrictions, many people, including myself, were more than ready for a heavy dose of outrageous beauty. I’ve seen the two hour movie four times since it arrived in mid-May.
“It’s by proxy,” said Goldstein, trying to explain why a 50-year-old French film starring actors who were largely unknown in America was such a success. “It’s a vacation in the south of France that a lot of people can’t take. There is also the incredible magnetism and chemistry of the two stars, who were true lovers. “
The film is categorized as a psychological thriller, but for first-time viewers there is very little going on until the very end. “Can you believe it’s still an hour ago?” I heard an older woman marvel at her friend near the halfway point.
A Bigger Splash, the wonderful 2015 remake of Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, which Americans may be more familiar with, keeps the plot line out, but, as the title suggests, it’s a lot more splashy. In this version, drowning is an accidental crime of passion, far from the cold and calculating murder of La Piscine; the dialogue is faster, the cuts sharper, the music louder.
Watching it now, after diving deep (um) into the original, made me realize that it was the very lack of action, the shameless decadence, that kept bringing me back to the theater. It is not a film which is interested in passing judgment on the good life.
Even as I became more sensitive to the subtleties of the film’s dialogues (“the first swim really hurts you”, says Marianne, when Penelope comes back from the beach after losing her virginity with Jean-Paul), I remained more interested in just watching beautiful people do very little. “Tomorrow, I’ll take a long nap,” says Marianne, lying on a sofa in a swimsuit after a day by the pool. Yes please.
That a film so entrenched in the free to resonate in 2021 is perhaps not entirely surprising. After a year in which New York City suffered tremendous losses and its people lived very limited lives, it’s understandable that we’re looking to strip down and have a good time, on screen and in outside.
Maybe there is something subconsciously appealing about the underlying anxiety stream, too. Much like the “hot vax summer” that never was, it turns out not another hour ago.
Upon returning from Harry’s funeral, Jean-Paul, Marianne and Penelope stand by the pool. “I’m going to have the pool drained,” said Jean-Paul. “I will never swim in this pool again,” says Marianne.
New York will undoubtedly be swimming in plenty of pools again, but for now, as the darker days return, it’s heartwarming that we can continue to do so for two hours at a time.
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