Monday, May 09, 2011

Skinny dipping in the movies

Clockwise from bottom left: Helen Mirren in Age of Consent; Jenny Agutter in Walkabout; Jane Asher in Deep End

In which three quintessentially English actresses take their clothes off and go swimming in three unique films made forty years ago.

Age of Consent | Dir: Michael Powell | 1969
Deep End | Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski | 1970
Walkabout | Dir: Nicholas Roeg | 1971

Michael Powell's career never recovered after his controversial (at the time) masterpiece Peeping Tom (1960), though it was made the same year as the equally shocking yet popular Psycho. Conservative English film critics essentially destroyed Powell's reputation and career; he would never make a film in England again. Age of Consent, made almost a decade later, was shot in Australia and stars James Mason, playing a successful artist who moves from New York to a small island on the Great Barrier Reef, and a 22-year-old Helen Mirren, who plays a native of the island. Some of the best scenes feature her swimming naked in the ocean.

Walkabout is also an Australian film made by an English director, the one and only Nicholas Roeg. Made just a year after being in the saccharine Railway Children, Jenny Agutter stars as a schoolgirl lost in the outback with her young brother, after their father has killed himself. Befriended by an Aboriginal boy (ubiquitous Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil), they track for days through the desert. Jenny Agutter swimming naked in a pool they come across is one of the most famous sequences, but the whole film has an extraordinary, almost hallucinogenic visual sense and Agutter's journey becomes one of sexual awakening.

The freshly 'found' (after apparently being 'lost') Deep End has a short run at London's NFT, as well as a couple of other places. Like fellow Łódź film school graduate Roman Polanski, director Jerzy Skilimowski came to London from Poland and gave us a slice of surreal, dark and erotic London no British filmmaker seemed capable of. And like Powell and Roeg in Australia, seeing a place with fresh eyes often gives fresh and original insights. Polanski had made the dark, surreal psychological horror film Repulsion in London in 1965 (after his first Polish feature, the largely water bound Knife in the Water), exploring Catherine Deneuve's demented inner state through visual means including dream scenes, cracking walls and later, most famously, grabbing hands coming through walls.

Jane Asher, now more famous as a cake decorator than actress (or the woman who was engaged to Paul McCartney in the late 60s; she ended up marrying illustrator Gerald Scarfe) was 24-years-old when she starred in Deep End as Susan, a red-haired temptress who works at a swimming pool. Innocent school-leaver Mike (John Moulder-Brown) gets a job there and swiftly develops a crush for Susan. Though the story begins as typical teenage angst, it eventually turns into sexual obsession and the film captures seedy London at the end of the swinging sixties like no other with its stark, surreal visuals and music by German band Can and Cat Stevens (Hal Ashby's bizarre black comedy Harold and Maude, made the same year, also has a great Cat Stevens soundtrack). A surreal fantasy sequence of Mike swimming naked with a cut-out cardboard lookalike of Susan, which suddenly morphs into the real thing, shows Mike's inability to tell reality from fantasy. The film's visual motif of liquids – water, ice (turning into water), even paint – inevitably ends with the most visual of all: blood.

I guess it goes without saying that male film directors like nothing better than a beautiful, young woman taking their clothes off for the camera yet there is something visually poetic as well as erotic (for men anyway) about a naked woman swimming underwater.

Film critic David Thomson mentions in this month's Sight & Sound review of Deep End the similarities with Jean Vigo's water bound masterpiece L'Atalante (1934). Both films feature water as a symbol of sexual desire; Vigo uses water as a poetic, often surreal motif throughout L'Atalante, with Jean Dasté searching for his missing wife (the delectable Dita Parlo) through water (including hugging a block of ice); she had told him he would only know he knows he truly loves her when he sees her in water, culminating in the lyrical, moving scene of seeing her appear before him dancing in her wedding dress when he dives into a river.

• Deep End at the BFI

Previously on Barnflakes:
Jean Vigo and L'Atalante
Top Ten British Film Directors

No comments :