La Piscine (‘The swimming pool’), 1969
(Released in England as The Sinners)
Starring Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet, Jane Birkin
Directed by Jacques Deray
Music by Michel Legrand
A French / Italian co-production from SNC, Paris / Tritone Films, Rome
Lounging about naked
Actors Romy Schneider and Alain Delon had a highly publicised romantic relationship in the late 1950s and early 1960s and were at some point even engaged to be married. Six years after they split up, they starred in the psychological thriller La Piscine as the lovers Marianne and Jean-Paul, who spend their vacation in a villa with an outdoor swimming pool in Ramatuelle, just outside Saint-Tropez.
It’s a stunning setting, and when Schneider and Delon aren’t half naked, lounging about the pool or frolicking in it, they’re beautifully dressed in clothes designed by French fashion designer André Courrèges, who at the time was at the zenith of ultra-hipness.
Marianne (Schneider) invites her former lover, Harry (Maurice Ronet), and his eightteen year old daughter (Jane Birkin) to spend a couple of days at the villa with her and her beau, Jean-Paul (Delon). Tensions rise between the four of them, and when Jean-Paul seems to have seduced Harry’s young daughter, events take a dramatic turn.
Jean-Paul and Harry, both drunk, get into a fight, and Jean-Paul ends up drowning Harry in, you guessed it, la piscine. A police investigation is started. Jean-Paul confesses everything to Marianne, who then has his fate in her hands.
A real-life murder
During filming in October 1968, a real-life police investigation was started when Alain Delon’s friend and bodyguard, Stevan Markovic, was found murdered in a rubbish dumpster on the outskirts of Paris. Before his death, Markovic had sent a letter to his brother, in which he wrote that if anything happened to him, it would be because of Delon and Corsican gangster François Marcantoni.
Delon was questioned, but police soon decided he was not in any way involved in the murder of Markovic. Marcantoni, the Corsican, spent almost a year in prison but was then released because the prosecutor could not prove his guilt. The murder of Stevan Markovic has never been solved.
Saccharin and infidelity
Romy Schneider (1938–1982) was born in Vienna, Austria, to a German mother and an Austrian father, both actors. Although she had already been a household name in the European film industry since the mid-fifties, when she starred as Empress Elisabeth (‘Sissi’) of Austria in a saccharin-sweet and highly succesful Austrian movie trilogy, it was her part in La Piscine that really made her legendary, especially in France.
It appears the producers had initially wanted another actress for the part of Marianne, but Delon (Sceaux, France, 1935), at the time one of France’s biggest movie idols, insisted Schneider was cast as his leading lady, even making it a condition for his taking part in the project. Film journalists have suggested it was his way of ‘making up’ for his infidelities during their relationship (they had remained friends after the split), although she really didn’t need the charity; her career was doing just fine.
Still, it can’t be denied that the film launched Romy into the artistically most interesting and most mature phase of her career, with challenging, movie-carrying roles that in the following decade arguably made her eclipse even Alain’s enormous celebrity. It seems that La Piscine was among the last of Delon’s real artistic highpoints while at the same time being Schneider’s step up to ever bigger artistic achievements in a series of lavish and succesful star vehicles.
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Romy and Alain starred together in three films — Christine (1958), La Piscine (1969), The Assassination of Trotsky (1972) — and one theatre play — John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1961, French title: Dommage qu’elle soit une putain), directed by Luchino Visconti. Both actors also had parts in the French films L’Amour à la mer (Love at Sea, 1965), and Paris brûle-t-il? (Is Paris Burning?, 1966), but Romy’s scenes were not included in the final cut of either of those.
In all the films they made together, the chemistry between them is tangible every time they share the screen, but never more so than in La Piscine. Moviegoers at the time of course remembered the closely documented love affair the two popular actors had had several years earlier, and that certainly helped the film become a major success.
The sex appeal and private lifes of the lead actors, however, are not the only reasons La Piscine is to this day regarded as a high point of French cinema. Both film critics and film fans agree that it truly is a stylistic and psychological masterpiece.
Sometimes bordering on whimsically kitschy — for example when images of a racing brown Maserati fade into a panorama of Romy Schneider’s naked tanned body; or the hardly coincidental colour coordination between La (green-eyed) Schneider’s green Courrèges dress and the green beach towel hanging low around Le Delon’s tanned hips in other scenes — the movie nevertheless paints a harrowing portrait of love, seduction, and (presumed) innocence, and, on an even more intriguing level, of jealousy, possessiveness, and defeat.
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Even though some events in La Piscine are perhaps best avoided in real life, the emotionally charged yet sumptuously undercooled, erotic, and utterly satisfying images simply make you want to run off to the Côte d’Azur for good and find your own Romy or Alain. Or both, for that matter…
Tasio Ferrand © 28 July 2018
Sources: Ciné-Ressources, IMDb, Les fiches du cinéma, notreCinéma, AllMovie, MovieMeter, Wikipédia, Collector Saint-Tropez magazine, having watched La Piscine numerous times.