Skolimowski: “Deep End”
[Originally written for the University of Washington Office of Cinema Studies Film Series "Love and Death," November 15, 1983]
Jerzy Skolimowski. The name does not come trippingly to the Anglo-Saxon tongue, but it’s worth fixing in mind all the same, for Skolimowski is one of the sharpest filmmakers now living. He doesn’t get to make a lot of films, and none that he’s made has won wide or conspicuous release. But every time I see one of his best moves—Barrier, Deep End, Moonlighting, much of The Shout—I come away exhilarated and a little awestruck at the nimbleness and suggestibility of his cinematic imagination. Few films are so quirkily, relentlessly alive. Few succeed so vividly in evoking a distinctive vision of life, in which the abstract and the concrete, the accidental and the poetically inevitable, trade off and reinvigorate one another as naturally as the heart pumps blood.
Blood is the first thing we see in Deep End. Or it may be red paint. Or it may simply be (as Jean-Luc Godard had it in Pierrot le fou) red. One of the moments I always think of first when I reflect back on this movie is a daftly barbed encounter between Sue and the bathhouse cashier. Sue drifts into the cashier’s vicinity and begins lazily to consume a milkshake. The cashier, an older woman, less attractive, more desperate, and weight-conscious, does her utmost to ignore the provocation; she glares without glaring. As so often in the film, the architecture of the scene is fraught with tension and definition. Sue moves to a bench across the corridor and eases down onto it; the cashier sits, half cut off from view, in her window. Hold this no-(wo)man’s-land composition a moment. Then this disembodied hand seems to reach out of the wall beyond the cashier and paint a hot red streak up and down the background. The explanation is perfectly rational: we have had ample opportunity to notice that the baths are undergoing a token cosmetic renovation, and in this case a painter has simply been working his way down the hall that intersects our focal corridor at the back of the shot. (He steps fully into view a few seconds later, a wholly anonymous, dramatically irrelevant personage.) Still, that first shock of red bursting against the otherwise bilious environment is at once profoundly unsettling and giddily satisfying. One wants to laugh and gasp in the same breath: laugh at the outrageous obtrusiveness of this stylistic comment, and gasp at how directly it speaks to the derangement of this deceptively prosaic world.
It’s difficult to conceive of a location that would be more mundane or less glamorous than the public baths where the eminently distracted Mike finds his first job. Yet these precincts function, in Deep End, as fantasyland for a damp-spirited society whose fantasies seem as impoverished as, say, the state of English plumbing. Impoverished but not enervated: once within these cracking tile walls, the galloping libido is free. For Skolimowski, this is the stuff of crazy comedy. The bathhouse habitués may be pathetic, absurd, perplexed, but they’re not inhuman; there’s nary a hint of judgment or moral superiority in the director’s tone. Nor is there any what-fools-we-mortals-be sentimentality. Like his fellow expatriate Roman Polanski (for whom he wrote Knife in the Water), Skolimowski can even look on horror without denying its component of ecstasy, and follow madness to its consummation.
If the baths is a place where reality becomes temporarily dislocated (or, perhaps, located), so is 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.
This strategy operates in the film at large. Skolimowski can take the most incidental element of a scene or situation and turn it to suggestive advantage within the quicksilver flow of his narrative. Without being stressed in the least, the awning on the Asian hotdog vendor’s cart crosses the framespace at just such a height that Mike and the vendor must bend slightly to see each other. It masks Mike’s eyes, reinforcing his air of distraction and visually stimulating our own perplexity about what he’s up to at this point in his frantic obsession with Sue. It also adds one more fillip to the scene’s bizarre comedy by providing a physical nudge to Mike to return the Asian’s bow every time he purchases one more “with mustard.” Possibly Skolimowski thought of this only a moment before setting up the scene. Much of his work has that feeling, of almost tripping over the everyday detail that will spin us into recognizing the underlying complexity.
These details add up insidiously. How can we anticipate, when watching the first shot of the film-proper (Mike in the manager’s office), that that electric cord hanging in the foreground will snake its way toward the astonishing final sequence with the inevitability of a nightmare? The power cord, the dangling light bulb, the electric teakettle; the red insulation tape and the red of Sue’s hair: they’re clues, they’re cues, and finally they’re destiny. This is a profoundly sensuous film, as voluptuous as it is harrowing. The best way to understand it is to be open to the immediacy of Skolimowski’s cinematic sensations. It’s through the very textures of his images, and the tortuous yet mesmerizing movement they describe, that we get to see below the surface, where love and death embrace.
Richard T. Jameson
Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. Great Britain–West Germany, 1970. Screenplay: Skolimowski, J. Gruza, B. Sulik. Cinematography (color): Charly Steinberger. Art direction: Tony Pratt, Max Ott Jr. Editing: Barrie Vince. Music: Cat Stevens & The Can. (88 minutes)
Cast: Jane Asher (Sue), John Moulder Brown (Mike), Karl-Michael Vogler (“Sir“), Christopher Sandford (Chris, the fiancé ), Diana Dors (“football” lady), Burt Kwouk (hotdog vendor), Erica Beers (baths cashier).
© 1983 Richard T. Jameson