Icons / June 2016

Chlorine Overdose: La Piscine

It is a story of jealousy, tragedy, repressed desires and … skimpy wardrobes. And at the centre of it all is one of cinema’s leading metaphors: the swimming pool. Josh…

As stylish a film as it is, anyone looking for style tips from La Piscine, Jacques Deray’s 1968 meditative Mediterranean psycho-sexual thriller, might be disappointed. The clue, as they say, is in the name, for the cast of four spend their screen time in various states of undress. The bikinis, crochet mini-dresses, geometric, backless and robe trapeze dresses and diaphanous gowns may have been designed for Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin by André Courrèges, then four years out from Balenciaga’s tutelage, but the effect — and the film’s theme of jealousy (sexual and otherwise) — tends towards nakedness. The men, played by Alain Delon and Marcel Ronet, are no less body-conscious: skintight swim shorts in psychedelic or paisley prints for their scenes at the pool, and, away from it, fitted trousers, big, groin-signposting belts, loafers, and semi-transparent, blousy shirts, with only a hyper-masculine Lee Rider denim jacket or suede over-shirt for the chillier evenings.

On any other nationality, you’d think there was a prescient channelling of Tony Manero. Indeed, if the film, which is being remade with Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson, of Fifty Shades of Grey fame, offers any style advice, its golden rule under a golden sun is this: shirts must, on all accounts, be worn undone to the navel, as though one is, frankly, too cool, too bohemian or too French to be bothered to do one’s shirt up. Well, it does get hot on the Côte d’Azur, and those checked cheesecloth numbers, or the chambray work shirt, look on the heavy side in this sunshine. Perhaps closed collars would present a risk of a fire hazard — Delon is rarely without a cigarette seemingly glued to his lower lip, smouldering away like his misguided passion. No wonder the film has inspired recent collections from the likes of Salvatore Ferragamo and ad campaigns for Dior’s Eau Sauvage.

"It is a story of long eye contact of uncertain meaning, of lascivious looks, of a kind of slow, self-destructive voyeurism, and of dialogue as minimal as the wardrobe."

Certainly, La Piscine has a good chance of being recognised as the most Gallic of the French films made in the post-nouvelle vague period. With this decidedly upper-middle- class movie as languorous in its pace as one might feel in the heat, every few minutes viewers are left with the need to jump into a pool as mentally refreshing as the perfectly blue centrepiece must feel physically. It is a story of long eye contact of uncertain meaning, of lascivious looks, of a kind of slow, self-destructive voyeurism, and of dialogue as minimal as the wardrobe. Intentionally or not, the more sexually loose the protagonists become, the more buttoned-up their dress becomes — Schneider graduating to mumsy, preppy shirt and pedal pushers, Delon to a black T-shirt. It’s as though they want to cover up their indiscretions. Sunglasses, characteristically huge, are worn less and less. The characters literally see the light.

They also talk about the weather a lot — not just a British trait, after all — and when they are minded to offer anything deeper, it is deep in the cod-philosophical way that comes across as distinctly French. “Some nights anything goes. Almost anything”; “How quickly things change”; “You have to change your own desires, not the order of the world”; “In the end one always has to choose, even between the worthless” — these are just a few of the ‘big thoughts’. That latter comment comes from an 18-year-old, as she requests that someone pick one of the two dough balls she has rolled from the remains of her baguette. So much for table manners from the home of haute cuisine.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.