A phantom film for more than three decades over a rights issue and only now redelivered to screens, Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970) comes carting a megaton of lingering fuchsia praise from its release heyday. (Andrew Sarris, obviously having an up week, declared it “the best of Godard, Truffaut, and Polanski and then some” in the Voice.) Today, Skolimowski’s movie, his first after exiling himself from Poland to the U.K. in the late ’60s, is a strangely impetuous study of coming-of-age sexual muddle, full of whimsy and abrupt ideas, and intoxicated from a distance, it seems, by Swinging London’s free-love commerce.
The focus is on Mike (the reedy, dewily beautiful John Moulder-Brown), who takes a job at a rundown swim club/bathhouse. He’s prey to every middle-aged woman who walks in, but he only has naïve eyes for Susan (Jane Asher), a co-worker and dissatisfied tramp who’s dallying with a lech swim teacher just as she eggs on an obnoxious but wealthy fiancé. The obsessive flirtation between Mike and Susan doesn’t build to a tipping point so much as smash around, alternating between happy communion and spitting jealousy and eventually meeting with an ultra-cool tragic-ironic end.
Partially shot in Munich (that chilly Eastern European feeling isn’t just a vibe) and then post-dubbed, Skolimowski’s film leaves Mike’s psychosexual confusion largely open for interpretation. (I kept wishing he’d just get laid already.) Far more entrancing is Asher, whose defensive, private go-go girl has deceived herself into thinking she’s using men rather than vice versa; there is also no underestimating the power of her orange-sherbet-meets-Truffula-tree coif, which floats hypnotically through the film like a royal jellyfish.
Deep End meanders and fantasizes (a scene obliquely suggesting some kind of sex club is clearly a product of the director’s idle daydreaming), but Skolimowski’s Eastern Bloc–existentialist chops finally emerge in the last act, as the futility of looking for a diamond in the snow evolves into a sex-death underwater ballet.