Jerzy Skolimowski's Deep End (1971) and The Shout (1978)

Polish Director Jerzy Skolimowski isn't exactly a household name, but during the '70s he wrote and directed two of the most accomplished English language films of a decade that had an embarrassment of cinematic gems. It's likely for this reason that his two masterpieces, Deep End from 1971 and The Shout from 1978, are rarely discussed. Neither are easily obtainable on video, but both were definitely worth the search. Skolimowski is probably closest in terms of style and mood to Polanski (Skolimowski cowrote Polanski's Knife in the Water, so they share some lineage too). Both directors share a sense of the macabre, a talent for black humour and their English language films have an outsider's feel – presumably because they were just that when they first broke out, Polanski in 1965 with Repulsion and Jerzy 6 years later with Deep End.

Deep End is a haunting film about teenaged sexual obsession. It has a dreamlike quality that's hard to describe, but feels somewhat like Nicholas Roeg, circa Don't Look Now, or a less-lurid '60s Mario Bava. Colour is liberally (and literally) splashed around to expand mood and emotion and the film has numerous hand-held camera shots that seem way ahead of their time. Interestingly, all this assured and novel direction doesn't get in the way of the story. Actually, you hardly notice it. What you do notice, however, is the cast - particularly Brit actress (and one-time Paul McCartney squeeze), Jane Asher, the flirtatious source of our young lead's sexual hypertension. Asher is spectacular, bringing a sexy and completely believable character to life. Much of the dialogue seems improvised, although I don't know if that's the case or not. The young love-struck teen is well-played by John Moulder-Brown, who falls under the spell of his older female coworker at a seedy bathhouse/pool in swinging London. Saying much more would spoil the plot so I won't, suffice it to say that Deep End is richly deserving of its cult film status.

The Shout, winner of the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes in 1978, is another riveting and yet elusive bit of film making by Skolimowski. It stars Alan Bates in a tour-de-force performance as a mysterious (and increasingly threatening) traveler who inserts himself into the lives of a North Devon couple (John Hurt and Susannah York, both excellent). More brooding mood piece than straight-forward narrative, The Shout reminds again of Roeg, but also Peter Weir's Picnic and Hanging Rock and The Last Wave, due to the stranger's claim (real or imagined) that he is a practitioner of ancient Aborigine ritual and magic. Skolimowski employs an unreliable narrator to tell the story in flashback leaving the viewer uncertain as to the accuracy and validity of the storyteller's tale. I suppose this film might considered a horror, although it isn't in any traditional sense. It drips with atmosphere in much the same way as the original Wicker Man does, leaving the viewer unsettled rather than scarred, if that makes any sense.

Both these films are nearly perfect examples of that certain undefinable '70s cinematic something that seems so much more daring and intelligent than what came after. The stories are adult and thought-provoking, bravely exploring complex emotional themes and posing difficult questions about sexuality, youth, longing and desires, issues it seems that are far too extreme for modern film makers. They served as a brilliant double-bill for the opening night gala at the 2010 SNUFF (Segredos Nearly-Unseen Film Festival) launch.

Today SNUFF continues with the universally-acclaimed and yet completely undistributed Colossal Youth (2006) by director-wunderkind Pedro Costas and another from the same year by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Sang sattawat (Syndromes and a Century). These are two of the most highly regarded films of the decade and I've seen neither. I'm plan to fix that today, although whether I can do 5 hours of static art-house film viewing remains to be seen. Reviews tomorrow.


the coelacanth said...

woah - so weird - i watched the shout last night and was going to do a write up for it, but looks like you beat me to the punch. i've got deep end in the queue as well, sounds like i won't be disappointed.

criterion's releasing colossal youth march 30.

glad to see the blog getting back to some semblance of legitimacy and moving away from html dick waving.

katia said...

is a film about the irrational side (the very nucleus) of artistic talent.
Like the main character of the film Charles Crossley, every artist just by trying to develop his talent is as if writing a story of his/her artistic achievement. Of course, Crossley will not write a book about himself – he is too occupied with his creative gift and its power, not with his personality. His genre of description of life of his talent is oral story-telling we, the viewers, are privileged to hear and to observe.
The psychology of a genuine artist as an artist (in relation to his creative power), according to the film, has three layers: unconscious tendency to worship and to exaggerate the magic power of his gift, being hooked on truth-value of his art (on its uniqueness), not on its success, and, finally, the proclivity of the artist to feel that the truth of his art is more important than his whole life and must be nurtured even if it’s by the price of the creator’s life.
The film depicts ontological rivalry between a genuine artist and artist-businessman who uses his art to become successful in money-making and fame and who is ready to re-shape his art’s truth according to market demands to make this art appealing and salable.
The “duel” of talents between Crossley and a “post-modern” composer Anthony, and Crossley’s amorous and sexual triumph over Anthony’s wife Rachel, the exceptionally attractive woman with emotional power that is equal to the universe, are depicted by Skolimowski with rare cinematic virtuosity.
The metaphoric level of Skolimowski’s communication with viewers of the film is impressively sophisticated, and we can enjoy (and be dazzled and challenged by) the symbolic density of director’s images, analogies and metaphors.
Please, visit: www.actingoutpolitics.com to read an essay about “The Shout” (with analysis of stills from the film, and also articles about the films by Godard, Resnais, Bergman, Kurosawa, Bunuel, Bresson, Pasolini, Antonioni, Alain Tanner, Cavani, Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Herzog, Maurice Pialat, Wim Wenders, Rossellini, Moshe Mizrahi and Ronald Neame.

By Victor Enyutin