This is part of a series of features exploring British cinema and culture as reflected by the releases in the BFI Flipside series.
There’s a song by Peggy Lee called “Is That All There Is,” in which she wearily reflects on the mundane reality of most of the emotions and events humans consider milestones. Tragedy, love, loss, entertainment, and ultimately death. In every case, upon enduring and coming out the other side, she shrugs and simply wonders, “Is that all there is?” Her realization, the idea that the most important events of our lives often turn out rather mundane when you step back and think about it, would make a perfect theme song for Deep End (1970, Jerzy Skolimowski), a film in which the promise of cultural and personal revolution turns out to deliver a rather drab reality.
It’s a film about the awkwardness of transition and the disillusionment that inevitably follows a time of lofty idealism, released as the dying days of the Summer of Love were giving way to the cynicism of the ’70s; when the shift in the social mores of western society that had been championed in the ’60s hit the brick wall of entrenched social conservatism; when people swept up in the promise of revolution had to face the reality of promises not kept.
Enter a Polish director who had gotten on the bad side of his own government during a period in which the potential for the liberalization of Eastern Europe slammed face first into neo-Stalinist communism. Lodz may not have been London, but there was still a common thread binding the end of the 1960s that meant, even if he was an outsider in British cinema, Jerzy Skolimowski still knew how to recognize the end of an era. Or if not the end of an era, than the realization that the era was not all its mythology made it out to be. This was a guy who’d seen the promise of communism versus the reality of totalitarianism.
Front and center in Skolimowski’s critique is the sexual revolution and its failure to deliver on its promises—especially its promises to women. Skolimowski sets his exploration of this disillusionment in a London bathhouse that is at once kind of seedy and grimy but also possessed of a certain beauty. The baths are dingy. Not exactly filthy, mind you, but run-down. The paint is peeling. The light fixtures are old. Everything is cracked and worn. Into this ruin of a once-lovely location wanders Mike (John Moulder-Brown, Vampire Circus), a fifteen-year-old kid (at a time when fifteen years old was considered much older than it is now) excited to have his first job, especially since management of the bathhouse is so half-assed. There’s a manager, a cashier, and a maintenance guy, but the only employee of note for Mike is Sue (Jane Asher, The Stone Tape, The Masque of the Red Death, Alfie), who in turn seems Mike as a guy who might help relieve the tedium of bringing people their shampoo. She lets Mike in on a secret: a good-looking young kid like him can score extra cash by being, you know, just a little more affectionate with some of the female clientele. Not sex, but just feigning interest in the flirtations of a middle-aged clientele (including former British bombshell Diana Dors) who want to feel like they’re still desirable.
Much of this film is about a society that desperately wants to convince itself it still “has it,” no matter how shabby the walls may now be and regardless of whether or not “it” was ever anything more than a collective fantasy; a lie one tells oneself about how cool and sexy one was when young, or a lie one tells oneself about how things were better before all these strange changes started happening. As the older generation tries to convince itself that it still has it, Mike is desperate to prove to himself that he’s getting it. Although he’s a good looking guy who doesn’t seem like he has any problem attracting potential partners, he’s also hopelessly naive and emotionally immature. Faced with adversity, he pouts and stomps off to the attendant’s room, where he reads comics. This is a fifteen-year-old kid, after all.
Predictably, he becomes smitten with Sue, but the bond they feel inside the bathhouse is tested outside, when the age difference becomes more apparent. She is herself in a transitional period, an anxious time between university, when being carefree is relatively easy, and adulthood, when society starts putting pressure on you to get your shit together. She treats Mike with the flippant flirtatiousness of someone who is young enough not to worry but old enough to have forgotten the irrational emotional intensity that accompanies adolescence.
While Mike’s job at a run-down bathhouse frequented by a rotating cast of desperate customers might make him a man of the world among teenagers, he’s still obviously just a kid when he tries to step into Sue’s world. He rides a bike while she travels in a car. She has a fiancée as well as an older married lover. Mike has an ex-girlfriend who is hesitant to lose her virginity to him. He is himself a virgin. But when she approaches him in awkward fashion at the bathhouse and says she is ready to have sex with him, Mike blows her off — as if he’s a swingin’ playboy and the self who wanted to fool around with her originally just a fumbling kid he can barely remember. And yet, it’s painful and embarrassing and confusing for him to be reminded, around his object of affection/obsession Sue, how much of a kid he still is.
That is brought into stark focus on two occasions which walk that razor’s edge between excruciatingly uncomfortable and absurdly humorous. During the first, Mike stalks Sue and her fiancé Chris (Christopher Sandford, Die Screaming Marianne). Chris is the slick playboy Mike thinks himself to be, but it doesn’t take much time with Chris to realize that, despite the purple frilly shirts and hip attitude, the life of a modern playboy can be dull. Or rather, the swingin’ playboy himself can be dull, especially for Sue. Chris takes her to a movie, one of the many “sexual education” films that were really just a way for canny exploitation filmmakers to pack their film with sex and nudity while maintaining that they were serving “the public good.” Like everything, this film within a film is an awkward affair, full of bad dubbing and corny puns. Sue isn’t offended by the sexuality on display. She is simply bored. Mike follows them into the theater and sits behind her. She initially seems receptive to his sheepish attempts to fondle her, but when he takes it a step too far she slaps him and makes a scene, involving her boyfriend, the theater management, and the police.
Mike is initially dumbfounded, having thought his advances were welcome, but soon he seems complicit in the scene, as if it was a gag he and Sue cooked up to make everyone uncomfortable. It’s not the first time both of them engineer a situation in which they seem to have no grasp of the potential consequences. In fact, immediately after the incident at the theater, Mike finds himself walking home in front of Chris and gets the older man arrested for making unwanted homosexual advances toward a minor. For Mike, it’s just a bit of petty revenge, but for Chris…look, the guy is a tool, but we never see anything about his character that would warrant him being arrested as a sexual predator.
On a second excursion, Mike follows Chris and Sue to a posh members-only nightclub. If the gulf between the teenage world and the grown-up world hasn’t been made clear to him yet, it is humiliating done so when he tries to enter the club and discovers that the ten quid week’s pay of which he was so proud is not nearly enough to get him into the club. He then begins a bizarre night of idling outside the club, eating a tremendous number of hot dogs from a local street vendor (The Pink Panther’s Burt Kwok), and trying to work up the nerve to go into one of the many Soho strip clubs—until such time as he sees a cardboard standee outside a brothel that he becomes convinced is Sue.
The night only gets weirder as Mike dashes back and forth across Soho with the life-size standee in tow, trying to avoid the irate brothel tout, ending up in the room of a bored prostitute with a broken leg, and finally following Sue onto the underground and having an emotional meltdown when he confronts her with his cardboard evidence of her secret life as a prostitute. She treats his accusation with amused vagueness, refusing to say for certain whether the cardboard woman is or is not her. Once again, the night’s antics swerve wildly from harmless teenage pranks to disturbing obsession without Mike or Sue seeming to be cognoscente of the increasingly dangerous ground they’re walking.
Mike reacts in similarly juvenile-bordering-on-psycho fashion when he sees Sue with her older lover (Karl Michael Vogler). He represents an older, fatter version of Chris, a man who pays lip service to women’s lib but, at the end of the day and just like society as a whole, expects Sue to fulfill a typically subservient, dismissible role in his life — an easy lay he can ditch and go home to his wife and kids with no feeling of obligation toward Sue while, at the same type, acting upset should she think of him in the same way. Once again, Mike stalks her, childishly blocking their car at a crosswalk. Later, he butts into a footrace the coach is marshaling, thinking that this will in some way impress Sue and embarrass the coach. It’s a chain of thought that really only makes sense to an adolescent in lust. When he orchestrates the coach’s car blowing out two tires while Sue is driving, it initiates a final series of events that will lead to a wholly unpredictable but, at the same time, inevitable-seeming conclusion.
All three men—Mike, Chris, and the coach—want Sue the liberated women but also expect her liberation to conform to their personal desires and their expectations of what she should be to them. For Mike, she is the fantasy girl to whom he will lose his virginity. For Chris, she is the cool hipster girlfriend who will go to pornos with him but still do what he says. And for the coach, she is the young fling that will be compliant to his desires without ever making any demands on him. Herein lies Deep End‘s criticism of the uneven contract sexual freedom drew up for men and women in which liberation of women was really only tolerated insofar as it was a service to men. In other words, a free-spirited woman who will sleep with you with no strings attached is great. But a free-spirited woman who won’t sleep with you, or who sleeps with someone else, is a whore. The same damning specificity for how one’s sexual liberation should be practiced is not, of course, applicable to men.
Sue, on the other hand, must feel that she can manage some small degree of control, some feeling of power for herself, as she manipulates poor, stupid Mike and insults the bathhouse cashier, a pretty middle aged-woman with a bit of a weight issue. These moments are petty, even cruel, but Sue is a women desperate for some sliver of control as she buffeted about by men who demand her to be a free spirit completely at their beck and call.
The demands of Mike and the coach upon Sue both come to a head in the empty pool of the bathhouse, in a scene in which Sue finally unleashes a bit of righteous fury on her older lover. She is not entirely lacking in complicity, and her handling of the situation is perhaps not entirely mature, but the rage is heartfelt and justified. The scene is shot from the point of view of the coach while Sue is in the pool, the camera looking down at her from on high like the older generation squatting oppressively on top of the younger, rendering her tiny and beneath him. We realize this isn’t just Mike’s coming-of-age story. It’s also hers, and the entire coming-of-age story of the 1960s which, as the world transitioned into the 1970s, found themselves mined for marketable content and exploited by the older generation while at the same time finding their idealistic demands sneered at and discarded.
Commercial society idolizes the young but also wants to put them in their place. The older generation was happy to slap a psychedelic flower onto a dress and sell it, but when it came time to afford the younger generation a place at the table, suddenly there was no room. In the same way, sexual liberation is fine when it plays into what men expect sexual liberation to be. But when women start demanding things like equal pay and an equal say, well then that’s another matter entirely and totally irrational. It’s a pattern we see time and again, as the dominant culture dabbles in a minority or counter-culture, then balks when that other culture demands a bit of equality.
On the other hand, no one in the film is innocent. For all that Sue feels (rightfully so) manipulated by the men, she too manipulates Mike. If no one seems to be behaving in a reasonable fashion, it’s probably because no one quite knew how to behave. It was a tumultuous period, and Deep End is a story about uncertain people in an uncertain setting both socially and personally. Fiancee Chris and the aging sports coach are just as uncertain as Sue and Mike. Chris is a swinger, a cool guy who is getting to that age when he’s going to stop being the cool young dude in the corner and start being the creepy old guy in the corner, still chasing the latest fashion and still trying to make the scene even though his sell-by date has expired. The coach (and, for that matter, a number of the older clients at the baths) is at that age when a man starts to panic about getting old, when the satisfaction of home and family starts to give way to the fear that you’ve lost something vital from your youth. Both he and the women at the bathhouse use the younger generation to make themselves feel important again. “I’m still vital, still beautiful. I still have power.” Mike and Sue are there to make their elders feel better about themselves, but at the same time, they represent a threat that must be put in its place, that must be prevented from seizing that power.
As heavy as all this may be, there’s something light and lyrical about the film. Director Jerzy Skolimowski and cinematographer Charly Steinberger bring an eastern European aesthetic to the film. The bathhouse is rubbish, but it’s also beautiful, splashed with brilliant colors and constructed like an odd sort of secret clubhouse. It’s a place where beauty once existed, but society has let it fade, has become inattentive. When he set about making Deep End, Skolimowski was new to England and possessed of limited language skills. He ended up splitting filming between London and Germany. The bathhouse was an actual location in London, but most of the outdoor scenes were shot in Germany. Similarly, though Brits Jane Asher and John Moulder-Brown anchor the film, most of the supporting cast was German. To get around the language barrier, the entire film was dubbed after-the-fact, lending the dialog a surreal, almost disconnected characteristic that serves to heighten the strange, otherworldly beauty the film finds in squalid locations and lends an additional layer of awkwardness to everything that is being said and done, that nothing is real. That it’s all a bit of a weird dream. When reality intrudes, abruptly and horrifically, it’s all the more jarring and upsetting for having seemed so unwelcome up until then. Like the end of the 1960s, it shatters the illusion.
It must have been an interesting film for Jane Asher, and one that is oddly personal. Asher was a child star. She appeared in Alfie alongside an ascendant Michael Caine, a film that works as an interesting companion piece alongside Deep End. However, and much to her chagrin, what many people remember her for is being Paul McCartney’s girlfriend. In 1963, the two began a stormy five-year relationship that ended in 1968 when Asher returned home one day to find Paul in bed with a groupie. By some accounts, that was merely the nail in the coffin of an already suffering relationship, and one can’t help but see some reflection of Asher’s experience with McCartney in Deep End. The Beatles were into their “swamis and sitars” phase (Asher was even with McCartney when the band traveled to India for their famous retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi), but whatever liberation and free love was extended to the men didn’t necessarily apply to the women. When Asher and McCartney were engaged, he expected her to give up her career for him while himself making no concessions to her. The end result was that Asher broke up with McCartney via national television.
Asher refuses still to discuss the incident and has expressed frustration that, while she moved on, interviewers seem unable to do the same. It bears such a close relation to what Asher’s Sue endures in Deep End that it’s likely the reason Asher brings such a likable vulnerability and world-weariness to Sue, who remains sympathetic even when she’s being awful. There’s uncomfortable chemistry between her and Moulder-Brown’s dopey Mike, something like a summer camp crush. They each make a series of awful decisions that one desperately wants them not to have made, but none of these decisions are unrealistic. Confused, frustrated people in a confusing, frustrating time often walk head-on into pits they should have been able to see coming.
Mike and Sue, for all their faults, are not two people you want to see fail. You certainly don’t want to see them come to any real harm, and for most of the film, one is simply anxious that they get their heads on straight. But this film is called Deep End for more reasons that the scene in which Sue and Mike find themselves standing in the deep end of an empty pool. Even then, when tragedy comes, it seems almost an afterthought. After so much has been endured, the final absurdity indeed asks, “Is that all there is?”