London cinema-goers had barely gotten over the shocks of Roman Polanski‘s Repulsion (1965) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) when Polanski’s fellow Pole, Jerzy Skolimowski, eviscerated the oxymoronic concept of free love in Deep End (1970), a psychological comedy as sexy, beautiful, and droll as it is sleazy, melancholy, and tragic.
Myth of free love
Skolimowski’s outsider view of England left the lasting message that, in the land where repression is hard-wired, love was no more free in the fading hippie era of the late ’60s and early ’70s as it is in the post-Skins era of the mid-to-late 2010s.
One suspects the same is true of all countries and eras, including Hookupville, USA, that have felt the cosh of puritanism. The possible exception is the Prague Spring, as sexily depicted in Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)—though Tereza in that film is scarcely down with her lover Tomas’s infidelities.
Deep End follows the naïf’s progress of Mike (John Moulder-Brown), a sometimes diffident, sometimes cocky 15-year-old middle-class drop-out who is hired as an attendant at a municipal bathhouse and pool in a seedy part of North London. (Skolimowski filmed some exteriors, including those of the farcical Soho set piece, in London, but shot most of the film over 28 days in Munich.)
Mike’s co-worker Susan (Jane Asher), is a cold, stroppy Cockney. Various critics have described her as a “tease” or a “tart.” Those are loaded terms. The character is less provocative than Susan George would have made her, yet she cynically indulges her flirty aplomb.
Sashaying and laying around in her micro-mini dresses and white go-go boots and attendant’s coat, or sauntering in her modish pale yellow PVC maxi coat, Susan drives the smitten Mike to distraction. She also encourages him to provide sexual peccadillos for older bathers, such as the woman, wittily played by the faded sex symbol Diana Dors, who voraciously clutches Mike to her breasts while she fantasizes about the soccer player George Best.
As Best is a masturbatory phantom for this buxom monster (a vulgar caricature of Susan), so Susan becomes one for Mike, who is prevented from seeing the petulant, unfulfilled real woman she is by her sexual masquerade. He falls in love with her, but does not know her.
Asher, who was 24 when Deep End was screened at the Venice Film Festival in September 1970, told The Guardian on the film’s 2011 release, “Susan was terrific to play. She’s at that stage where she’s completely aware of her sexual power and uses it ruthlessly. Now that I’ve got two sons of my own, I feel more protective of Mike, more so than back then, when perhaps I was a bit more like her myself.”
Despite Susan’s brash style, London in 1970 was receding from Carnaby Street and post-Sgt. Pepper’s effervescence into a drabness that would echo the socio-political upheavals of the coming decade with its inflation, industrial unrest, and eventually the 1978–79 “Winter of Discontent” that brought Margaret Thatcher to power.
‘The Pregnant Man’
A sea change in the battle of the sexes was occurring. The National Women’s Liberation Conference, which took place at Ruskin College, Oxford, between February 27 and March 1, 1970, and the publication that year of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics raised the feminist consciousness of thousands of British women ready to grasp their share of power. While Susan is clearly uneducated in this way, she has caught a whiff of dominance; whereas other women used power judiciously, Susan has been corrupted by it.
A crucial interaction between Mike and Susan involves a famous press poster created by the Saatchi & Saatchi forerunner CramerSaatchi for the Family Planning Association. Showing a pregnant man and bearing the legend “Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?”, the poster is beheaded by Susan with a couple of rips. She then jokingly places the paper torso over the prostrate Mike’s body.
Susan’s action effectively places the younger boy in a sexually receptive position in relation to her, symbolically revenging such ‘knocked-up’ women as those played by Rita Tushingham and June Ritchie respectively in the kitchen sink dramas A Taste of Honey (1961) and A Kind of Loving (1962). Susan is like a shrill, opportunistic version of Liz (Julie Christie), the warm liberated woman who, in cinema at least, ushered in the Swinging Sixties in the kitchen sink comedy Billy Liar (1963).
Susan has age-appropriate suitors much more useless than Mike. She is engaged to a weak monied guy, Chris (Christopher Sandford), who takes her to porno movies—their sex life seemingly null. She also sneaks off for quickies with Mike’s louche former school sports coach (Karl Michael Vogler), whose habit of touching inappropriately the adolescent schoolgirls he brings to the pool for swimming lesson enrages her. This seems less because he is a pervert than because he isn’t giving Susan his undivided sexual attention.
Like many who have acquired power, however, Susan doesn’t know how to control it—which causes Mike to lose control in turn. Obsessed with her, he manifests his sexual frustration bizarrely. Susan’s flaunting herself in front of him—she also spitefully mocks the zaftig swimming baths cashier (Erica Beer) by lewdly spooning a creamy drink onto her tongue and boasting of her slenderness—causes him to act out.
During the brilliantly semi-surreal Soho sequence, he steals from a strip club a cardboard advertising figure of a topless girl (for which Susan may or may not have posed, though the face is Asher’s). He then heats up his campaign to win her by sabotaging his older rivals.
Because the coach held an authority position over Mike, there’s an Oedipal component to their contest for Susan’s favors. Mike’s puncturing of the coach’s car tyres, which indirectly leads to Susan losing the diamond from her new engagement ring in the snow, enables the youth to steal a march on both the fiancé and the lecher. Mike was indisputably led on by Susan: when he stalked her and Chris in the porno theater, she greeted his cupping of one of her breasts from the seat behind her by turning and kissing him on the mouth.
Splattering the drabness
It can only end in tears—or a more ominous leaking. Susan doesn’t reckon with the dormant instability—equal parts sadness and rage—she elicits in Mike. She arouses him and renders him impotent simultaneously.
Splattering the drabness with washes of bright color, Skolimowski builds Deep End (the title perhaps its darkest gallows joke) vertiginously, first to a literal anti-climax, then to an expressionistic climax that sends his beautiful boy and girl to hell. That the film’s sexual neuroses feel as relevant now as they were back in 1970 reveals how good—and how disturbing—it is.
If you can’t make one of today’s Metrograph screenings of Deep End, it’s available on a 2011 BFI Flipside dual format disc.