Saturday Editor’s Pick: “Deep End” (1970)

by on June 10, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat June 11 at 5:15 & Sun June 12 at 4:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


A welcome retrospective of the globe-trotting Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski begins at Queens’ Museum of the Moving Image this weekend and continues through July 3.


Long unavailable — like many films with ripping soundtracks, Deep End had suffered a sad fate of obscurity due to music-rights issues — it reappeared in 2007 in a beautiful new print at Anthology. If you weren’t lucky enough to catch it then, today and tomorrow are your two chances.


Dan Callahan lays it all out for Alt Screen:

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.
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.


Ryan Gilbey has a fabulous rundown of the film’s history, plus interviews several key players including Skolimowski, for The Guardian:

It’s not uncommon for movies to drop out of circulation and simply disappear, as fans of Deep End will attest. Barely seen since its release in 1971, the film concerns Mike (played by John Moulder-Brown), a floppy-fringed 15-year-old who becomes dangerously infatuated with Susan (Jane Asher), his co-worker at the public baths. What’s unusual about this prolonged absence is that it should have befallen a film so passionately admired. The influential critic Andrew Sarris thought it measured up to the best of Godard, Truffaut and Polanski. The New Yorker’s Penelope Gilliatt called it “a work of peculiar, cock-a-hoop gifts”. If something as venerated as Deep End can sink, what hope for the rest of cinema?


After years of being mired in rights issues, this vivid, rapturous film is about to return in a restored print. It’s appropriate that such an elusive picture should transpire to not be quite what it seems. What could have been just another coming-of-age story is transformed by an absurdist sensibility, uninhibited performances and a heightened use of colour. Although considered a defining British work, as well as one of the most acute screen portraits of London, Deep End is actually a US/German co-production, written and directed by a Pole (Jerzy Skolimowski, best known then for co-scripting Polanski’s Knife in the Water), and shot largely in Munich.




David Jenkins, upon its nomination by Time Out critics as one of the 100 Best British Films:

One of the all-time great London movies, the splendidly sleazy Deep End definitively proves that it takes an outsider’s eye to really capture the true textures of a city. Written and directed by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski (who cut his teeth co-writing Polanski’s masterful debut Knife in the Water), the film captures the sexual shenanigans of the staff and clientele of a squalid South London swimming bath. Naive teen Mike (John Moulder-Brown) is the new kid, and – amid much inappropriate bum-pinching and his near-rape by regular bather Diana Dors (who else?!) – he falls madly in love with his coquettish manager Susan (a stone-cold tour de force from Jane Asher – who else?). But from its Carry On-ish opening, the film morphs into something much more sinister, even segueing into Peeping Tom territory, as Mike’s love turns to violent fixation. Plus, its ultra-seedy depiction of Soho nightlife is the sort of thing you might find nowadays in a Gaspar Noé movie.


Bruce Bennett was very excited to see this one in circulation again, for the New York Sun:

Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 film Deep End is perhaps the least swinging vision of swinging London ever made. Skolimowski is a director of substantial skill and range. Deep End is his masterpiece and it remains one of the unheralded gems of what is currently the most critically lionized period in sound filmmaking.


Blending irreverent, slapstick giddiness with a genuinely disturbing portrait of a friendless teenage boy’s lovesick mind, Deep End plays like the bastard child of Hal Ashby and Roman Polanski’s cinematic sensibilities. Mr. Skolimowski’s camera essays the London of Deep End — ostensibly the creep capital of the Western Hemisphere — in ambitious long takes. In concert with a soundtrack by pre-religious conversion Cat Stevens and proto-punk future prog-rock giants Can (credited as “The Can”), the director twists sexual sublimation, soap scum, chlorinated water, and fish-belly-white skin into images of limpid, haunting beauty.  A one-of-a kind plunge into misanthropy, lust, and transcendence, this courageously unsentimental yet keenly sensitive work of art unpacks the messy tangle of the teenage male psyche with an acuity unmatched anywhere else in cinema.


Glenn Heath Jr. for Match/Cuts:

Skolimowski seems intent diving head first into scenes, skipping establishing shots altogether, plunging Mike deeper into his personal heart of darkness. This editing pattern makes Skolimowski’s London a relentlessly dark and muddy place, where conformity runs rampant and sexual deviousness is status quo. Or maybe that’s just Mike’s impression of this very adult world, and ultimately his eyes often tell untruths when experiencing the emotional roller-coaster of first love. It’s all a slippery slope, and Deep End certainly displays a unique narrative current hardwiring every scene into a disjointed psychological circuit breaker. For Mike, Skolimowski’s strange and unsettling world is a dangerous place to come of age.



Richard T. Jameson for Parallax View:

The whole of Deep End an exercise in dislocation, both explicitly and implicitly. It’s a Polish-born and -trained director’s movie about a uniquely English milieu that was largely realized in Munich, West Germany. This internationalism undoubtedly contributes, if only subliminally, to the film’s air of taking place in a highly charged limbo. It feels like the work of a perennial exile (Skolimowski himself can be glimpsed as a subway passenger reading a Polish newspaper) who sees into the prevailing systems with the clarity of a practiced survivor, at once shrewdly circumspect and detached. He glances places a native wouldn’t think worth looking into. The loft at the baths, for instance—visually evocative of an improvised jungle gym, an absentmindedly unfinished room, a zone that was probably informed with obsolescence and decay from the time the building beneath it came into existence; and this is the private space Mike and Sue share for one of their most mysteriously fraught early interactions. This outsider’s inside view of things also extends to the categories into which social politics has separated life, and recognizes them all as battlegrounds; male vs. female, youth vs. age, employer vs. employee, customer vs. attendant, lawbreaker vs. law enforcer, club member vs. nonmember…


The distinctive thing about Skolimowski as a filmmaker is, he deals in ideas without ever letting them freeze into Ideas. They remain always in motion, always flexing into new, unexpected, and scintillating configurations. Consider the amazing scene in which Mike first realizes that his old athletic coach and Sue have a sexual relationship. After glimpsing Sue entering the coach’s cabinet at the baths (which the camera also just glimpses, thanks to an exactly judged angle and the well-timed swinging open of a window), Mike rushes to the closed door. The sounds from behind it are tantalizing but they don’t tell him enough. He grabs a wall mirror and shoves it under the door. Inverted glimpses of an embrace, clothes rustling up over shoulders; still not enough. He withdraws the mirror and looks at his own reflection; what does he expect to find there? What does he find? He smashes the mirror on the floor and, as if on the shockwave from that concussion, is propelled down the hall to shatter another piece of glass, the cover on the fire alarm. He drops down from the bench he has stood on to reach the alarm; and the camera drops too, tipping its gaze to his feet as they, almost of their own independent will, begin an eerie, childish, heel-to-toe regression along the corridor…. Skolimowski has covered all of this with only a couple of shots: he keeps the visual action as intact as possible, the better to measure the weird, shrapnel-like pattern that its logic describes as it explodes before our eyes. The tension—stylistic, emotional, symbolic—is ferocious.


Christopher Weedman gets a little theoretical for Senses of Cinema:

In his 1981 discussion of Deep End, Danny Peary remarks that Mike’s growing sexual obsession with Susan “becomes as difficult to watch as James Stewart in Vertigo”. Peary’s comparison of Deep End and Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) is apt, because there are similar moments in each film where Skolimowski and Hitchcock express their male protagonists’ regressive attitudes towards women through visual style. Skolimowski invokes Hitchcock’s narrative and stylistic techniques by limiting our point-of-view almost exclusively to Mike, thus implicating us as Mike begins to go off the “deep end”. Following Mike’s night of stalking Susan and Chris in Soho (culminating in the outburst on the subway), we begin reconsidering our identification with him. Robin Wood’s discussion of our renegotiation of identification with Stewart’s Scottie in Vertigo could be applied easily to Mike in Deep End. “Identification is not so much annihilated as severely disturbed, made problematic”, Wood argues. “We now know far more than he does, and what we know reflects critically on him, on our own prior identification with him, and on the whole concept of romantic love on which our culture has placed such high ideological value.” We are disturbed by Scottie and Mike’s unhealthy desire to possess an idealised (entirely male-constructed) woman. Each character possesses little understanding or concern for female sexual desire.


In addition, both Skolimowski and Hitchcock suggest their protagonist’s heightened passions through expressionistic water imagery. Echoing the melodramatic waves crashing in back of Scottie and Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) in Vertigo, Mike’s desire for Susan in Deep End is expressed in an offbeat fantasy sequence lasting slightly over half a minute. After returning from his argument with Susan on the subway, Mike throws the cut-out into the water of the bathhouse’s swimming pool. As Mike jumps into the water, Skolimowski and editor Barrie Vince utilise a jump cut to make it appear that Mike has shed his clothes spontaneously. This sequence becomes even more hallucinatory through Skolimowski’s use of slow motion as Mike caresses the cut-out under the water. Suddenly, the cut-out morphs into the real-life Susan, which suggests Mike’s increasing inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.




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