A Steamy French Thriller Is a ‘Sleeper Smash Hit’
The 1969 film “La Piscine” was supposed to run for two weeks at New York’s Film Forum, but it’s been extended to the fall.,
For the past 14 weeks at Film Forum, a longstanding independent and repertory theater on West Houston Street in Manhattan, the 1969 French film “La Piscine” has been playing — a run that has extended its initial engagement by 12 weeks, and counting.
“Rear Window,” “8 1/2 ,” “La Strada” and a popular Humphrey Bogart series that included “Casablanca” have all come and gone, but “La Piscine” swims on.
If there is a film of New York’s 2021 summer, this may be it.
“La Piscine” (which means “The Swimming Pool”) revolves around Jean-Paul (played by Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider), who have retreated to a house with a large pool outside St. Tropez.
Sadly, he only gets one month of vacation. The lovers are unexpectedly joined by Harry (Maurice Ronet), Marianne’s former paramour and Jean-Paul’s former best friend, and his 18-year-old daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin). Much decadence and extremely French crossover love ensues.
Of course, life at the pool is not as it seems. (If you are a person with strong opinions about spoiler alerts for 50-year-old French films, skip the rest of this paragraph.) Tensions mount and in the final half-hour Jean-Paul coldly murders Harry by slow, brutal, drowning. After one of the chicer funeral scenes committed to film, Marianne covers for Jean-Paul to the police, despite the fact Jean-Paul had just declared his desire to leave her for Penelope.
Sex, opulence, a dash of danger. Could anything better describe New York’s post-lockdown mood? And then there’s the epic style: Come for Alain’s open-to-the-navel denim shirt, stay for Romy’s Courreges-designed bathing suits. It turns out, many New Yorkers have.
“It’s a total sleeper smash hit,” said Bruce Goldstein, the director of repertory programming for Film Forum and the founder of Rialto Pictures, which distributes “La Piscine” in the United States. “The numbers have not dipped at all. We hit all the right nerves with this.”
Ah, yes, those nerves. After more than year of pandemic restrictions, a lot of people, including me, were more than ready for a heavy dose of outrageous beauty. I have seen the two-hour film four times since it arrived in mid-May.
“It’s vicarious,” Mr. Goldstein said, trying to explain why a 50-year-old French film starring actors who were largely unknown in America, has been such a hit. “It’s a vacation in the south of France that a lot of people can’t take. There’s also the incredible magnetism and chemistry of the two stars, who were real-life lovers.”
The film is classified as a psychological thriller, but to first-time viewers, very little happens until the very end. “Can you believe there’s another hour of this?” I overhead one older woman marvel to her friend near the halfway mark.
“A Bigger Splash,” the marvelous 2015 remake starring Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton, which Americans may be more familiar with, maintains the broad strokes of the plot, but, as the title suggests, it is much splashier. In that version, the drowning is an accidental crime of passion, far from the cold, calculating murder of “La Piscine”; the dialogue is faster, the cuts sharper, the music louder.
Watching it now, having done a deep dive (ahem) into the original, made me acutely aware it was the very absence of action, the unapologetic decadence, that kept pulling me back to the theater. This is not a film interested in passing judgment on la belle vie.
Even as I became more sensitive to the subtleties of the film’s dialogue (“the first swim really takes it out of you,” says Marianne, when Penelope returns from the beach having lost her virginity to Jean-Paul), I remained more interested in simply watching beautiful people do very little. “Tomorrow I will take a long siesta,” Marianne declares, lying on a couch in her bathing suit after a day by the pool. Yes, please.
That a film so grounded in the gratuitous has resonated in 2021 is perhaps not entirely surprising. After a year in which New York City suffered enormous loss and its residents lived heavily circumscribed lives, it’s understandable we are looking to take our clothes off and have a good time, onscreen and off.
Perhaps, too, there is something unconsciously appealing about the pervading undercurrent of anxiety. Much like the “hot vax summer” that never was, it turns out there is not another hour of this.
After returning from Harry’s funeral, Jean-Paul, Marianne and Penelope stand at the pool’s edge. “I will have the pool drained,” Jean-Paul says. “I will never swim in this pool again,” Marianne says.
New York will, no doubt, swim in many pools again, but for the moment, as the darker days return, there is some comfort in still being able to do so for two hours at a time.