One of the first things you notice on the DVD cover for the BFI’s restored edition of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End is John Moulder Brown’s bared buttocks. Beneath him is the beautiful Jane Asher, more pleased than you’ll remember her looking after you’ve watched the movie. Around them is a solid aqua-blue background. Are they at sea? Trapped in some vaguely psychedelic sex vortex?
Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is.
For a film about [otherwise] unrequited teenage desire, this post or concurrent coitus could seem a relative spoiler. But look closer and it isn’t: you’ll see that Brown’s head is sunken in some confusion of frustration and shame, and that what you briefly mistook for pleasure in Jane Asher’s expression is really ambivalence for the boy draped across her torso.
All this is fitting, because Deep End is a film made up of similar subtleties, an economical 90 minutes where barely a second is wasted, and where the small idiosyncrasies of characters in flux constitute deeper meaning.
In summary the plot is this: Mike (John Moulder Brown) is fifteen years old and newly left school to take up a position at a London public bathhouse and swimming pool. Susan (Jane Asher) is his co-worker, ten years his senior. Mike is instantly smitten with Susan and descends rapidly into an adolescent, lovesick obsession. Susan by turn is hot and cold with his affections, reeling him and repelling him at equal turns. Mike’s anguish at being unable to possess Susan is compounded not only by her well to do fiancé, but by her overt promiscuity, which extends to Mike’s former P.E teacher and various male clientele at the bathhouse. Mike turns to stalking Susan and follows her to Soho where he is dismayed to find what appears to be her image on a cardboard cut-out outside a strip club. He confronts Susan on a train and demands to know whether the image is her, but she refuses to answer and instead taunts him by flaunting her diamond engagement ring.
Suffice, without over describing plot points, little improves from here on.
Deep End is a complex character study of both adolescent and adult sexualities, and the combustible relationship between the two. In Mike we have the accentuated longing for the seemingly unattainable, and in Susan we have the coy apathy for the easily disposable. These are realistic characters, neither hero nor villain, just flawed and human. If we find Susan’s ambivalence cold-hearted, we also recognise Mike’s tantrums as obviously juvenile. Narratively they are complimentary opposites, and that dynamic is at least one reason why the film works as well as it does.
Another is that the dialogue and exchanges feel particularly naturalistic. In part this may be due to Skolimowski’s encouraging his actors to improvise. How much improvising Asher and Moulder Brown did is anyone’s guess, but they are both excellent here, and since the film pivots on two primary characters, their contribution as actors should not be underestimated. Asher especially is entirely believable as an object of teenage longing, not just for her physical presence, but by the facets she exhibits and inhabits as her character, the intangible conglomerate of best friend, sexual fantasy, and standoffish ambivalence. (That Mike turns down the chance to sleep with an ex-school girlfriend who proffers herself willingly emphasises the fact that Susan’s ambivalence is indeed part of her appeal, however inexplicably. His preoccupation supersedes perfunctory sex if it discounts Susan. By contrast, all Susan’s relations with men appear informal and perfunctory.)
The cinematography in Deep End (once praised by David Lynch) by Charly Steinberger is in itself captivating, most memorably in the underwater scenes, the vaguely eerie beauty of which borders on the surreal. Similarly striking is the completeness of the bathhouse environment, where the majority of the film takes place; one has a sense of immersion as a viewer, and somehow this extends to the scenes in outer London which are mostly twilit, often seedy locales. That the film has a dream-like quality is due in part to its unique spatial qualities and sometimes painterly art direction, as well as to the sense of inevitability with which the story unfolds.
It is hard to fathom that for over forty years, between 1970 and 2011, Deep End was, for whatever reason, legally unavailable. (A restoration was undertaken in 2009, and in 2011 it was finally re-released by the British Film Institute to cinemas, and finally blu-ray/dvd.) If the film maintained a certain reputation among committed cinephiles in the interim, it certainly explains why it is not more widely known by the public. Not everyone will appreciate this film, but those who do find themselves attuned to its particular and peculiar wavelength will find themselves renumerated by a work which is more than unique. Noteworthy mention for the soundtrack by Cat Stevens and Can.