Lessons We Can Learn From La Piscine

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La Piscine, 1969, Film Still

Libidinous exchanges, poolside posing and admirably scant swimwear – there are many valuable lessons to be gleaned from this languid 60s thriller, writes Hannah Lack

An intoxicating, sun-soaked mystery with the skimpiest of wardrobes, cult 1969 thriller La Piscine drips 60s Cote d’Azur glamour. Set almost entirely around the limpid pool of a villa in the hills above St Tropez, wealthy couple Jean-Paul and Marianne (played by Alain Delon and Romy Schneider) are indulging themselves in a languorous summer holiday when Marianne’s record-producer ex Harry appears out of the blue with his coltish daughter (Jane Birkin) in tow. Old rivalries, repressed jealousies, stifling heat and copious alcohol bring libidos to boiling point with deadly consequences. Here we gather some lessons from the simmering summer drama and its louche cast.

For blistering sexual chemistry, call your ex
Whether wrapping their tanned limbs around each other beside the pool, or indulging in some light S&M, the onscreen chemistry between Alain Delon and Romy Schneider virtually burns a hole in the screen. Rippling under the surface was a stormy romantic past: after meeting on the set of Christine in 1958, the pair became cinema’s most ridiculously photogenic couple, until Delon broke off their engagement in 1964 (“Gone to Mexico with Natalie” read his obliging note). But four years later, Schneider was still on Delon’s mind, and he insisted she be cast in La Piscine – director Jacques Deray wanted Monica Vitti or Angie Dickinson: “I wanted Romy and nobody else, or I would not do the movie,” Delon said later. “She was sublime, seductive, dedicated and provocative.” The electricity between them proved his instincts right, and La Piscine marked a triumphant comeback for Schneider.

Beware the unexpected guest (and his daughter)
When Harry rolls into St Tropez in his maroon Maserati, he brings his doe-eyed daughter Penelope (Birkin), who takes to lounging beside the pool in a microscopic white bikini. The ensuing onscreen jealousy spilled into reality on-set. That year, Serge Gainsbourg and 22-year-old Birkin had just recorded Je t’aime… moi non plus and were Paris’s most scandalous golden couple. The idea of his new girlfriend enjoying the attentions of a half-naked Alain Delon propelled Gainsbourg down to the Riviera to keep an eye on the unfolding drama – he spent his days morosely drinking in the Senequier café in St Tropez. But unlike in the film (and despite the actor’s best efforts), Birkin resisted Delon’s charms.

Some things are better left unsaid
With willfully sparse dialogue, most of the film’s plot unfolds between the lines. Clues lurk inside the foursome’s nonchalantly oblique conversation, mixing apparently mundane exchanges with smouldering looks heavy with doom: “You have to add spice, otherwise it’s a bit bland” notes Harry, airily discussing the best way to cook Chinese food, while hinting at his recipe for a successful relationship. “The first swim is always tiring,” sighs Marianne, when Penelope flees the dining table to ponder her recently abandoned virginity. By leaving it all unsaid, director Jacques Deray teases out the paranoia and builds underlying tension to suffocating levels.

Don’t drink and dive
Mixing swimming with Scotch is never a good idea, particularly in the presence of a jealous romantic rival. La Piscine’s enticing rectangle of chlorinated, cerulean blue stands in for a deep swamp of repressed desire, in which the cast thoroughly submerge themselves. (All except Penelope – not yet completely corrupted, she prefers to swim in the sea.) When Harry drives back from St Tropez steaming drunk and spies a brooding Jean-Paul beside the water, their confrontation leads to the film’s murky climax.

Dress sexy at funerals: in St Tropez, even mourners are chic
Balenciaga protégée André Courrèges designed La Piscine’s effortless, idle-rich wardrobe of plunging swimsuits, crisp pastel shirts, mini-dresses and diaphanous backless gowns. Schneider as Marianne manages two swimming costume looks before lunch, while Birkin as Penelope sports tiny crochet dresses, cool white t-shirts and the infamous wicker basket whose malfunction lead to the creation of the Birkin bag. The film has perhaps the chic-est funeral procession ever caught on film, with a tear-free Birkin and Schneider taking the lead in black and white Courrèges trapeze dresses.