Deep End is a film driven by and dripping with discomfort, an effect that’s heightened by the 40-year interval between its original release and recent revamp by BFI’s Flipside imprint. The story of Mike, a London teenager working his first job as a public bath attendant, and his sexual obsession with his co-worker Susan, it is morally ambiguous in tone, pitched somewhere between psychosexual thriller and a dark coming-of-age comedy. In that sense it’s quite typical of the era in which it was made: particularly where working-class characters are concerned, the sexual liberation promised by the seismic cultural shifts of the 60s often translated in British film into an atmosphere of acute sexual tension, characterised by anxious promiscuity and voyeurism, casual misogyny played for comic value and a kind of nervous laughter that seems to signify fear more than pleasure. (The merriment generated by Rita Tushingham’s use of the word ‘rape!’ in Richard Lester’s 1965 The Knack… and How to Get It springs to mind, as does weirder fare like David Greene’s 1969 thriller I Start Counting, a claustrophobic murder story that doubles up as a slightly creepy study of suburban schoolgirl Jenny Agutter’s developing sexuality.)
But there is something more self-aware about Deep End. The uncomfortable mood is not just the by-product of its time and our latter-day perspective on it, but also, perhaps, of director Jerzy Skolimovski‘s own slightly distanced perspective on his subject. This might seem at first like a British film, but much of it is shot in Munich, and it’s a UK/German production by a Polish director whose previous credits included the script for Polanski’s sophisticated Knife in the Water. So, immediately, the setting doesn’t feel right; something is off-kilter - and I admit I wasted a good few minutes trying to work out ‘where’ in London the bath scenes were filmed, while knowing somehow they weren’t quite English-looking enough. Certain sequences, such as the film’s dénouement involving bin-bags full of snow and a lost diamond, have a touch of avant-garde European theatre about them, and the use of ‘Mother Sky’ by German band Can on the film’s soundtrack adds to the sense of displacement: instead of the lumpy late-60s grooves often flowed over party scenes of the time, we get Jaki Liebezeit’s metronomic drums and Damo Suzuki’s androgynous Japanese-English vocal. In addition, Skolimowski effects some neat shifts in perspective that feel very deliberate, initially inviting us to bond with his young lead (played with disarming fervour by John Moulder-Brown) and enjoy the initial friendship between him and Susan (an impressive, dispassionate Jane Asher) as they deal with the demands of their unappealing elders, in the form of sexually rapacious customers, Mike’s forlorn parents and the repulsive schoolteacher with whom Susan has an on-off affair. As Mike’s desires get more aggressive and delusional, and Susan attempts to move on and away from her mundane life via her proprietorial mod boyfriend, the viewer is left stranded in a quite nightmarish miasma of frustrated wants and needs, and can only dread the outcome.
Where Deep End really excels and discomfits - and this is one good reason to catch the cinema re-release - is when it homes in on the physicality of everyday life, the weirdness of existing in our bodies and environments. The camera pays forensic attention to both Mike and Susan’s bodies with an unusual equality - lingering as much over John Moulder-Brown’s skinny, downy adolescent limbs as Jane Asher’s slender body. Their natural, young beauty is sharply contrasted with the poverty of their surroundings and attitudes. Aside from the clammy coldness of the pool itself with its mouldy changing rooms and slippery sides and walls in need of repainting, Mike and Susan exist in a world of crap British weather, muddy grey snow, uncomfortable clothes, cheap shampoo and health education posters asking ‘What if a man could get pregnant?’ The brief exterior shots of London offer no escape, showing suburbs still ravaged by Second World War bomb damage, stuffy porno cinemas, overpriced clubs offering a sedated kind of fun, and a bland Soho where Mike meets a maternal prostitute with one leg in a plaster cast.
Of course, much of this is only apparent in retrospect - it’s almost half a century later and we are so used to cleaned-up, non-furtive depictions of bodies and sex and exercise, even when they’re supposed to be gritty and ‘real’, that the grubbiness of the 1960s and 70s comes as a shock. But even if something is the contemporary norm, it can still be commented upon, and Skolimowski’s choice of setting suggests that this is so. The pool itself is laden with meaning, even before you get to any Freudian water/sex interpretations. At the time, a public bath was not just a place to keep fit or have fun, as it is now: for poorer people in London, still living in pre-war housing, it was where you went to wash. (It was also one of the few places you’d actually see or be in proximity to other people’s almost-naked bodies.) Wryly bleak, Deep End suggests that not only are we in over our heads, but we will never quite get clean either.