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The Forgotten: A Smaller Splash

Resentment and distrust sizzle in the south of France in this Alain Delon thriller that may not be a thriller at all.
David Cairns
I normally try to avoid egregious spoilers, but only one thing really happens in Jacques Deray's La piscine, and it happens quite near the end. Up until then, this 1969 anti-thriller compels fascination and infuriation as events fail to unfold over its two-hour-plus runtime.
There's an indefinable tension in the air, some of it erotic. Ad-man Alain Delon and his partner, journalist Romy Schneider, are vacationing at a friend's place in the south of France. They're joined by a friend, possibly her former lover, Maurice Ronet, and his teenage daughter, Jane Birkin. Delon suffers pangs of jealousy and suspicion. He decides to "retaliate" against Schneider's perceived unfaithfulness by seducing Birkin. That's it for the first ninety minutes, but it's less eventful than I'm making it sound.
The film coasts along, a tanned flesh-scape augmented by rippling water and searing blue skies. It has the pace of a holiday, maybe one of those endless ones when we were all younger than we are (I was two in 1969, I'm sure I'd have enjoyed the heat and the pool but probably not the film). If movies have taught me anything, other than that visiting Venice with your wife will get your throat cut, it's not to go on summer holidays with Alain Delon (see also Purple Noon). The handsome star has always veered towards unsympathetic characters, perhaps sensing that his divine beauty needed some vice to offset it, or perhaps he's just a nasty piece of work (there is some evidence to support this) and likes playing those guys in a narcissistic way. It would be hard not to be narcissistic if one looked like Delon.
Schneider is stunningly beautiful also: directors got the benefit of working with a highly-sexed risk-taker determined to destroy the sugary image her Sissi films had given her. The sixties and seventies saw her doing a lot of racy material, always a step ahead of what the erotic cinematic fashions said was safe to attempt. The level of nudity and sexual contact here is strong for '69, but there's a surprising touch of kink too, when Delon teases and thrashes her with a length of branch plucked from a handy tree.
So, in terms of plot there's not much happening, but there's plenty to keep your attention, as the lovers pass through an unending array of swimming costumes and tension, of both the sexual and male-competitive kind, simmers away. At times, the uneventfulness and the lack of explicit naming of the problems seems reminiscent of Last Year at Marienbad, at times like a Gallic Harold Pinter script. (Jean-Claude Carrièreis one of three credited writers—no hint of Buñuelian absurdity intrudes, but there is evidence of the master's fish-eyed unsentimentality.)
If you've seen Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool, or if you're suspicious about titles generally, you may be inclined to suspect foul play in the offing—surely somebody has to get drowned—but after ninety minutes even the most dedicated murderhead may be losing hope. Then it happens. Imagine a Columbo episode in which eighty percent of the screen time is devoted to hanging out with potential killers and victims, and the remaining twenty percent introduces a detective who has suspicions but gets nowhere. Sound dull? It isn't, because of the prevailing tension and uncertainty, which keeps up until the last frame.
Director Jacques Deray became Delon's go-to guy for middling thrillers, most of which turned up on late-night UK TV, dubbed into English, in my youth. None of them seemed to have anything much going for them besides the star's glowering presence. But this, from its upside-down title sequence (!) to its groovy music by Michel Legrand (no suspense music, just a series of scenes where characters put records on), to its sexy, malevolent unspoken subtext lurking beneath the shimmering surface like a libidinous shark, is something else. The ultimate summer film for misanthropes?
The Forgotten is a regular fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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