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Review: Desire by the poolside electrifies psychodrama of 1969’s ‘La Piscine’

A couple, seen from the waist up, lying nude in a bed.
Romy Schneider and Alain Delon in Jacques Deray’s 1969 film “La Piscine.”
(Rialto Pictures / Studiocanal)

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Your summer movie cocktail of sun-dappled desire with a splash of bitter provocation over ice awaits with the welcome restoration of the 1969 French film “La Piscine.” It’s two hours of beautiful people in tantalizing states of undress and unease that might just have you practicing your most chic mysterious chaise longue poses ahead of your next swim party.

Its director, Jacques Deray, is not a name typically associated with the classic French cinema of his time. But in a journeyman’s career beginning in the early ’60s that emphasized personality-driven crime sagas, “La Piscine” and its sexual tension showed he could pull off something cool and stimulating, menacing and modern, as savvy about what courses underneath real lives as it is distractingly gleaming on its luxe, seductive surface. (Though the film was little seen in the U.S., its reputation was enough to inspire a remake in Luca Guadagnino’s underappreciated 2015 film “A Bigger Splash.”)

Saint-Tropez holidays don’t get much more erotically photogenic than this movie’s opening moments, in which a perfectly bronzed, buff and blasé Alain Delon and a luminous, fresh-from-the-water Romy Schneider — playing vacationing couple Jean Paul and Marianne — engage in some teasing, merry poolside foreplay. Delon and Schneider had been a real-life item but were friendly enough after separating that he insisted Schneider be cast or he wouldn’t do the film, and the stars’ chemistry readily rivals the wattage from this midday scene’s natural light source.

The easy sensuality soon is interrupted by word that a mutual friend is on his way to the pair’s borrowed villa — news not exactly well received by Jean Paul. But it isn’t just imposingly chatty music executive Harry (Maurice Ronet) stepping out of that glinting burgundy Maserati at the front steps: He’s brought along a beautiful teenage daughter, Pénélope (Jane Birkin), whom nobody knew existed, and whose aloof poise and coltish sense of style instantly draw Jean Paul’s attention. (Early on, Delon, so good at opaque masculinity, grabs her hand, demanding to know her age. When she says, “18,” his impassive reaction is ridiculously suspenseful.)

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What transpires over the next few charged days of al fresco mornings, frisky afternoons and alcohol-laced nights — including an impromptu party Harry throws for his daughter’s birthday with a caravan’s worth of young guests — is a vibrating psychodrama about possessiveness and insecurity. You can practically hear the ticking toward whatever violent reckoning has been set in motion by this quartet’s baggage and maneuverings. The pool at this picturesque Riviera getaway is where these passions come to mix and clash. Certain longings emerge, and others find a watery demise.

The film is never just some glassy exercise in the idly loaded’s languorous cruelty though. In each magnetic performance (especially Schneider’s), in the sparse but piquant lines from the script co-written with the great, recently departed screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (working from an Alain Page story), and in Deray’s attention to emotional humidity, lies something resolutely curious about human frailty in relationships. Delon’s A-list moue turns existential, Schneider’s loving gaze goes wandering, Ronet’s slyness hardens, and Birkin — the recipient of some choice reaction shots, like fashion pages leaping out at you — grows wise to the gamesmanship of vulnerable adults.

Before you know it, a detective is haunting the grounds and “La Piscine” is absent its summery vibe, Deray and cinematographer Jean-Jacques Tarbès having turned the temperature down visually and moodily to the equivalent of a stark, shadowy wade into a cold pond. So much so, in fact, that the movie even suffers some for all that has vaporized in the fallout from one character’s unfortunate fate. (In real life, Delon was questioned by police on set about the killing of his bodyguard, which turned into a political/Mafia scandal.)

Then again, one can expect the bracing slap of air on skin after emerging from the pleasures of a deep-end dive, which makes “La Piscine” and the celluloid-rich revival of its choreography of bodies and behavior more than just a superficial basking in the textures and temporalities of desire.

'La Piscine'

In French with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes

Playing: Starts May 21, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; Laemmle Town Center, Encino; Laemmle Glendale


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