IN ALL OF the best work of the Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski, there is a barely-there surrealism in play that keeps his films excitingly unsteady, as if the goal posts were being moved from scene to scene. Even in a seemingly naturalistic setting like the London bathhouse of Deep End (1970), Skolimowski’s finest film, there is always a sense that something is not quite right; each moment is pregnant with a humorously deadpan, sometimes slaphappy, but still menacing possibility.
A key player in the new Polish cinema of the 1960s (he was a writer on Roman Polanski’s 1962 debut Knife in the Water), Skolimowski left his native country in 1967 and has since worked all over the world as both actor and director. He has a liking for eccentric literary adaptation, as evidenced by King, Queen, Knave (1972), his lightheaded take on Nabokov, and 30 Door Key (1991), a Crispin Glover-headlined riff on Witold Gombrowicz’s absurdist novel Ferdydurke. Skolimowski’s shy, almost hidden visual surrealism can be felt especially in his blackly comic Moonlighting (1982), a London-set fable about illegally employed Polish laborers where every scene seems to be hovering around the idea of science fiction or escape into fantasy.
Deep End was shot mainly in Munich, which is surely part of its unstable, “where are we?” ambience, but it captures a specific and palpably grotty vision of Swinging London circa 1970, a world in which sex is everywhere but maybe isn’t as much fun as it’s supposed to be. Mike (John Moulder-Brown) is a cute fifteen year-old boy who has acquired a job at the somewhat bordello-like Newford Baths, a bathhouse where the middle-aged go to clean themselves up and get their jollies with the staff, often not in that order. This sounds like the premise for a sex comedy, and there is humor here, but always there is an undercurrent of melancholy. Deep End takes place in an atmosphere where sex is so available, so up for grabs, that people rush into it without thinking about its dangers and its consequences, and older people take advantage of younger people in every sexual permutation possible. At first, Skolimowski seems to be anthologizing a series of ultra-vivid vignettes on sexual yearning and frustration, but these episodes steadily accumulate into a portrait of Mike’s over-accelerated sexual education and abruptly curtailed childhood.
“ARE YOU KEEN on football?” snarls big blonde Diana Dors as she grabs Mike by the hair and thrusts him into her heaving bosom, frothing at the mouth with football terminology delivered as ecstatic dirty talk: “Tackle, dribble, dribble….shoot,” she moans. Dors, who was known as the British Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, has straw-like hair here that looks like it’s been dyed platinum so many times that it might fall out in clumps at any moment, and her iconographic status as a fallen ‘50s pin-up puts a deeper sting into her portrayal of desperate, grasping sexual nastiness. When she’s spent, she tells Mike to get out, “I don’t need you anymore,” and Skolimowski holds the camera on them both so that we feel not only for poor, passive Mike but also for this brutish, lonely woman who has used him up and tossed him out like a dirty Kleenex.
Dors’s predatory football lover is matched by a middle-aged, bottom-smacking swimming instructor (Karl Michael Vogler) who lecherously pulls at and gropes his teenaged female students before shoving them them into the pool; it becomes clear toward the end that he delights in taking their virginity. All the sex in Deep End is corrupted by power dynamics, and this extends to the way that mean-eyed young Susan (Jane Asher), who also works at the baths, takes advantage of the younger Mike’s crush on her by continually teasing him. She feels the need to emasculate this boy before he even grows into any kind of masculinity, and as Deep End goes on, we begin to learn that she has her own deep-seated reasons for doing this. In the film’s most touching, most romantic moment, Susan leads Mike on in a porno theater that is showing a hilarious, of-its-time nudie called The Science of Sex, and he’s rapturously happy after copping a feel of one of her breasts and getting a kiss from her in return; she allows herself a rare smile of genuine amusement at his happiness. They’ve briefly managed to make a connection, a debased connection, but a connection all the same.
Outside of a peep show (“She takes everything off!” cries a sidewalk barker, “Nothing on and nowhere to hide!”), Mike discovers a topless cardboard cutout of Susan, and he grabs it away jealously. Pursued by the barkers, he stumbles into a trapdoor-like room and has an encounter with the reclining, dark-haired prostitute Beata (Louise Martini) that turns very weird when she pulls a shawl off of her right leg to reveal a cast; this is the most outright surreal moment in the movie. Good-hearted but threatening, Beata tries to get some money out of Mike and learns that he gives most of his salary to his parents (we only see his mother once very briefly at the bathhouse, and we never hear anything about his father). Outraged, and in need of cash, Beata condemns Mike’s parents: “They brought you into this world, haven’t they? They’ve had their fun, they can pay now!” This outburst comes out of her need to manipulate Mike into paying her, but it carries a deeper kind of nearly existential truth, and it also happens to be a good-and-rude, fish-and-chips example of lower-class British humor hitting on something profound.
THIS IS A MOVIE that trembles, even bristles, with nerves and character-revealing sly humor, especially in the scenes where Susan quietly taunts the Baths cashier (Erica Beer), and Skolimowski punctuates his film with images that make us feel how our physical environment can manifest our own interior muddles. After Mike rejects an old girlfriend, he runs down the hall of the bathhouse and playfully knocks the overhead lights so that they’re left swaying in his wake; it’s as if he now feels power over this sordid establishment after having made a power move himself. Reacting to a fire alarm, Beers’s cashier gets out a fire extinguisher, and when she exits, Skolimowski holds his camera on the soapy mess she made with it on the floor, which yokes together ejaculation and emergency in a way that exactly expresses the film’s growing sense of sexual terror. The saddest and sweetest image here is Mike trying to cover the breasts of the topless cardboard cutout of Susan with his coat; he can’t process that she’s not only a stripper but also a part-time hooker.
Mike seems to be very much on his own throughout Deep End, and he also seems like a sheltered boy who has been thrust out too quickly into a world that he cannot understand or handle. When I first saw Deep End, I thought that the ending felt wrong or unnecessary, but now that I know the film better, it feels inevitable, a decisive yet impetuous moment of childlike violence that cannot be helped or avoided. In his other films, Skolimowski has never quite matched the flame-like intensity of Deep End (though Moonlighting comes close), but its insight into the sexuality of a certain time and place still makes the same dizzying impact that Mike feels as he staggers away from the fleshy, sweaty insistence of Diana Dors, a woman who has the look of a stale cheese puff left out in the rain still waiting for somebody to pick her up and crunch her in their mouth.
Dan Callahan’s first book, a critical study of the films of Barbara Stanwyck, will be published in February 2012.
Deep End, part of the program “The Cinema of Jerzy Skolimowski,” is playing at the Museum of the Moving Image on Saturday June 11th and Sunday June 12th.