3:14 pm Dec. 21, 2011
Deep End, which screens through Thursday at BAM Cinemathek, is a snapshot portrait of the libidinal awakening of a shy British 15-year-old named Mike (John Moulder-Brown). It’s a coming-of-age movie as imagined by Polish filmmaker Jerzy Skolimowski.
Most American audiences know Skolimowski as Naomi Watts’ grumpy Russian uncle in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (his signature line: “Do you always rob the bodies of the dead?”). But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in Poland and later England, Skolimowski made everything from semi-autobiographical dramas to avant-garde polemics about censorship in Poland.
Deep End steeps viewers in the hangover-style haze of its lead protagonist’s experiential confusion. Skolimowski treats surreally awkward situations with a very straight face, making Deep End that much more affecting as a drama about nascent sexual confusion. This is, after all, a film that ends with a nude bather getting brained and floating limply in an indoor pool, then cavorting underwater like a sea nymph with her lover. Being young and horny can be deeply alienating but also pretty amusing, too.
When Mike accepts his first job as an attendant at a local bathhouse, Susan (Jane Asher), his colleague and the target of Mike’s lust, is told that he’s going to be ogled and lusted after. He’s told this up-front, but not directly. Susan tells him that being young and fit will make certain clients interested in his, uh, assets. She then tells Mike that it’s OK for him to take tips from these overly friendly clients.
This facetiously casual recommendation is important later on in Deep End, when Mike becomes so obsessed with Susan that he drags a cardboard standee of a stripper that may or may not be Susan from a gentlemen’s club and runs around the London underground with it. When he confronts her with the cut-out that may or may not be her on the subway, she claims not to know who that girl is. But hey, we already know that she’s OK with other people making money from loaning out their young bodies. So why wouldn’t she do it, too and, more importantly, why does that thought make Mike so uncomfortable?
Well, a number of reasons, actually. Firstly, Mike’s simultaneously traumatized and fascinated by sex. For instance, his first encounter with a lusty client doesn’t go very well. A plump and robust middle-aged woman gets into such a frenzy at the thought of seducing Mike that she rants heatedly about soccer while shaking Mike by his hair. She leaves ten pounds for him with Susan but Mike is very reluctant to take it. He doesn’t know what it’s for, or more accurately, he doesn’t want Susan to think he’s knowingly taking money for a sexual favor.
Mike’s so concerned with what Susan will think of him that he barely sees how fundamentally disinterested she is in him. Skolimowski jokingly represents this by showing Susan how to lure a toy dog close to her just so she can peg it in the behind with a snowball. Susan’s interested in Mike, but as a plaything, not a boyfriend.
In fact, Susan already has a fiancé. This only upsets Mike. He demands that she tell him one thing that her boyfriend has that he doesn’t. She shows him her engagement ring and he sputters in protest. But just by showing off her ring, Susan says so much about herself and her relationship with Mike without ever speaking in cogent or totally direct terms.
Susan is fluent in mixed messages, which is bad for Mike, because while his intentions are pretty clear, he’s awful at articulating them. So it doesn’t help that, when Mike follows Susan and her fiancé into a porno theater and starts to grope her, Susan starts to play with him. Her boyfriend leaves the auditorium to find a manager. Susan doesn’t stop him. This panics Mike. He protests that surely Susan knew it was a joke. She laughs in response, presumably with him. But she doesn’t call her fiancé off. So Mike gets hauled into the local police station for groping a girl that he not only knows outside of the theater but is really just messing around with him.
Which is what makes the scene where the two characters finally consummate their on-again, off-again attraction that much more bizarre. The two of them are hunched over a pile of dirty snow that they’ve tracked indoors in the hopes of melting it down and finding Susan’s engagement ring’s diamond stone, which just fell out of its fixture. Susan calls her fiancé and tells him that she might be late joining him (emphasis on “might be”), that she’s stuck at work, something about a burst pipe. And she rejoins Mike only to find him collapsed under a sheet. She fears the worst, or at least she initially appears concerned.
Then she pulls the blanket off of Mike and reveals that he’s not wearing any clothes. Not only that, but he’s hidden her diamond on his tongue. He doesn’t relinquish the rock to her until she reluctantly strips her own clothes off.
The scene, complete with the hyper-real Foley work that accompanies every scuffling of shoes on tile floor or creaking of wood in the film, represents sex as a weird, improvised but totally naturalistic courtship ritual. It’s a particularly odd scene, especially since Susan hesitates to go along with it. She goes to her clothes and then reluctantly returns to him. Then they finally do it.
Which is really refreshing. Deep End isn’t a bildungsroman. Mike’s attraction to Susan doesn’t make him grow as a character, doesn’t teach him any life lessons and it doesn’t give him any clear perspective on who he really is as a person. Instead, Skolimowski shows his young hero in a transitional period, a moment in his life where a lot happens and not a lot makes sense. Sounds like adolescence, alright.