Film Review: DEEP END (1970)

by
  • Director … Jerzy Skolimowski
  • Cinematographer … Charly Steinberger
  • John Moulder-Brown … Mike
  • Jane Asher … Susan
  • Diana Dors … First Female Client
  • Karl Michael Vogler … Susan’s lover
  • Christopher Sandford … Susan’s fiancé

Deep End is the rarely seen, second directorial effort from Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. Recently, Turner Classic Movies screened Deep End as part of their TCM Underground series, which gave me the opportunity to finally view this cult classic. I had wanted to see this film for several months because I was a fan of Jane Asher (Alfie, 1966; Death at a Funeral).

Deep End is an ode to the dying Swinging Sixties scene in London. Instead of the glittering optimism and stellar youth movements celebrated in prior films about 1960s London, Skolimowski exposes the seedier side of the youth scene, the purposelessness of their decadence and the commonplace nature of obsession, betrayal, and perversion in their world. A study of unredeemable characters, the film probes into the emptiness people felt in their lives after the Sexual Revolution. In the final scene of the film, Susan screams, “What am I supposed to be like?” a line that encapsulates the struggle for identity during the tumultuous late 1960s.

John Moulder-Brown stars as Mike, a fifteen-year-old boy who has recently left school to start his first job as a bathhouse attendant in London’s dirty East End district at the Newford Municipal Baths. Mike is shown the ropes by his older coworker Susan, played by Asher. Susan is a femme fatale type, a girl out there for a good time and who has “been around the block” several times, despite being only nineteen-years-old. Her naturally flirtatious manner causes the impressionable and inexperienced Mike to quickly fall in love with her.

The objective of their jobs is to get the highest tip possible from their bathhouse clients, thus Susan advises Mike on how to deal with the occasions when he encounters lonely older women at the bathhouse: “You know old chap, ladies of a certain age tend to favor polite and obliging young boys. So do some gentlemen.” Susan does not view this behavior as a problem; rather, it is a way for her to get more money – she encourages Mike to switch clients so that they can get maximum tips from the opposite sex. “You don’t have to do anything for it. Just go along with the gag. That’s all they want,” she tells him nonchalantly.

As Mike and Susan work together on a daily basis, Mike becomes obsessed with her, believing his misguided affections to be an excuse to stalk her after work to her home and on dates. The film follows Mike as he wanders all over London watching his obsession from an uncomfortable distance. In a scene that comprises a large part of the film, Mike waits outside of a strip club in Soho until Susan comes out. It is both disturbing and comedic to watch him trek to find Susan, all the while carrying a life-sized cardboard cutout of Susan in her stripper guise ‘Angelica.’

The final sequences of the film show Mike’s obsession causing tragic results, with his object of affection as the main victim. Centered around the diamond from Susan’s engagement ring lost in the snow, the final scene builds up to the moment for when Susan finally surrenders herself to Mike’s obsession. The true climactic moment is completely arbitrary – like the death of Pina in Rome, Open City, nothing prepares the viewer for the shocking and tragic end.

What is most interesting about Deep End is its total lack of the typical “good girl/boy” characters of traditional Hollywood cinema. Mike is centered in the plot to be the “hero,” but his leading characteristics are that he is obsessive, controlling, and often delusional. Susan is not a girl one would consider to be respectable in any sense, as she not only juggles her time between her well-off fiancé and a married swim instructor, but by night she is a stripper by the name of Angelica. Susan’s fiancé, though well-to-do, is portrayed to be a sexual deviant in the film – he often takes her on dates (against her wishes) to pornographic films and swingers clubs. Susan’s lover, a swimming instructor who is a client of the bathhouse, is a pervert who seduces the adolescent girls on his swim team (it is hinted that Susan was once one of these girls). The clients of the bathhouse are mostly wrinkling, overweight women in their middle age who attempt to seduce the fifteen-year-old Mike.

Moulder-Brown and Asher shine in their respective roles. Moulder-Brown is captured at the delicate age between childhood and adulthood, perfect for the awkwardness and tortured longing of adolescent inexperience that the role of Mike requires. Asher looks stunning as Susan, the London dolly bird-gone-wrong. Her portrayal of the bad girl Susan is subtle yet complex – her gestures reveal a world-weary soldier who has seen too much in life, but combines this with the confident swagger of someone who knows they are irresistible and could have anything in life. As the femme fatale, Asher is the antithesis of her own public persona during the 1960s as Paul McCartney’s sophisticated, English Rose girlfriend. Also entertaining to watch is former screen bombshell Diana Dors as a sexually frustrated fading beauty who aggressively pursues Mike.

The direction and photography of the film are stylistically very interesting in their boldness. For instance, the harsh winter weather is contrasted against the brightly colored clothing that Susan wears. As the narrative becomes darker, the scenes become brighter. The last scenes of the film are the most disturbing, but they are set in a field of dirty white snow and then in the emptied, sterile pool of the battered-looking bathhouse. In both scenes Susan is wear a yellow trench coat, a brightly printed dress, and white go-go boots and Mike is in a full white outfit and white sneakers. Despite the disturbing nature of its’ content, the scenes look bright and clean. The cinematography acts as a counterpoint against the material. The film has a fairly bleak in its mise-en-scene. With the exception of Susan’s bright clothing and flaming red hair, the film is compromised of washed-out, decaying tones. Deep End was filmed using a handheld camera, and combined with the constant use of natural lighting, gives the film the look of an extremely low budget production. Skolimowski repeatedly uses the camera to steadily circle the actors in 180 and 360 degree shots, and edited the film to have the majority of its’ scenes be long takes without cuts.

The film dances between many different genres, experimenting with absurd comedy (the Diana Dors scenes in particular), melodrama, black comedy, and surrealism. Increasingly as Mike’s obsession grows, the surrealist tone of the film extends to match the blurred lines between reality and fantasy. Despite these various layers, Deep End is at its heart a raw tale of a boy’s transition into manhood, though it is unlike any other coming-of-age story of adolescent angst and love that I have ever before viewed. Its refreshingly unsentimental approach to the narrative story reminds me of the French New Wave films that preceded this film by a decade. Skilomowski tells the story of Antoine Doinel’s (of Truffaut’s 400 Blows) less self-assured and more sexually frustrated British brother. We watch Mike wander to and from his job aimlessly on his bicycle and stalk Susan and her fiancé on dates. The only thing that motivates the plot besides Mike’s obsession is the audience’s own voyeurism into their lives.

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