How you experience a film is always somewhat dependent on what you bring to it. I suspect the success of The Swimming Pool (La Piscine) relies especially on the imagination of the viewer; if this film sets your imagination going, what’s actually on screen is less essential.
Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) are a highly sexed couple on holiday on the Riviera. When Marianne invites her former lover Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his hot but dim teen daughter Penelope (Jane Birken) to join them, the sexual tension intensifies to an eventual crisis.
Marianne spends much of the first hour of The Swimming Pool stretched out, horizontal, in one of a variety of swimsuits. If any of these actors gives a compelling performance, there are moments when Schneider does. It’s possible to feel for her character. Alain Delon is Alain Delon. He has a variety of scowls. His character comes across as a shit, even before he commits the worst of his various offenses. Penelope is 18 for God’s sake, not 8. She’s shown prancing around with a basket and flitting like a butterfly balancing on stones–like she’s a child on a picnic. Her father Harry simultaneously seems to want her for himself and to want to pawn her off on Jean-Paul.
Harry (noticing that Jean-Paul is watching Penelope): Lovely, isn’t she?
Jean-Paul: Not bad.
But no. That’s not creepy at all…
It’s not just Harry. Everyone seems to want Jean-Paul to get in Penelope’s bikini. At least, they accept that it’s inevitable, and the first half of the film largely consists of everybody waiting for it to happen already. Then Harry gets angry when it does. No one here is likable. Birken’s acting doesn’t help. She’s just a body.
There are a few good scenes once the film reaches its midpoint, but it takes too long to get to them. I know it’s the summer. In 1969. In the South of France. And they’re on holiday. But this film is so damn slow. There’s just no way it needs to be over two hours long. The first hour could be condensed by half and nothing critical would be lost.
Plenty of films are slow, subtle boilers, and I’m a big fan of some of them. I think of the film Three, also from 1969. That film touches on these same themes, in a slightly different way. You could say far less actually happens in Three, but I find it more appealing. I am more sympathetic to those characters’ emotions.
The Swimming Pool is not without merit. Maurice Ronet’s performance isn’t bad. In terms of the writing, Romy Schneider gets a fun line: “The first swim is always tiring.” Ah, euphemisms. Jean-Paul confesses to Marianne by asking a question. There’s something satisfying about watching the inspector pick these characters apart in the last quarter of the film. And there’s the subtext of Delon and Schneider’s prior real-life relationship. (I’m looking forward to watching them together in something else.) There’s enough here for a good film of perhaps 80 minutes or so.
The ending is infuriating.