“What were you doing to her, boy?” a cop asks young Michael in the offices of a porno theater. Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 movie Deep End revolves around the question of exactly what teenage Michael wants to do with his slightly older co-worker Susan. Standing in Michael’s way of exploring Susan and his own nascent sexuality are Susan’s fiancé, her older lover, the cops, and Michael’s generalized anxiety about all things sex.
Michael meets Susan when he gets a job at a public bathhouse. Susan shows him the ropes and teaches him how to clean a private room. After she’s done, nothing looks any cleaner, and the whole establishment is layered with such a permanent layer of filth that the routine of cleaning it seems like a sick joke.
The bathhouse’s clientele is made up of horny weirdos and derelicts moaning and groaning through the movie’s atonal dubbing, as well as gaggles of prepubescent girls being teased and fanny-slapped by their swimming instructor. As we watch virgin Mike’s tentative discovery of his sexual desire in the confines of this den of iniquity, the grime of the bathhouse comes to look seedy and perverted. In the background of one scene, a worker slaps bright red paint over a slime green wall without any primer: like Michael’s desire, the wall’s color is getting more intense but it remains muddy. When a fire extinguisher starts spraying unnecessarily (prematurely?), there’s no mistaking the double meaning of the white goop sprayed all over the floor, or Susan’s lament that she’s the one who will have to clean it up.
Michael feels himself maturing but unable to function in an adult world, and Deep End brilliantly captures this tension between youth and adulthood, grappling with aggressive feelings of carnality and being unsure if they’re dirty or not. If the feelings are dirty, but you can’t get rid of them, then maybe all bets are off. Maybe Michael has to turn off his conscience entirely. By the end of the movie, he will seem to have done just that.
Throughout Deep End, the light is dreary. Outside it’s a gray winter and in the bathhouse everything is sickly fluorescent. The camera is relentlessly intimate, often so close to the actors that it can’t keep up with simple movements, occasionally a beat behind the action. Things look a little more vibrant in the little red light district where Michael lurks looking for Susan, but the place he really wants to be is inaccessible. When he tries to find Susan in a club that she goes to with her boyfriend, he stands in the entryway talking to the girl at the door. He can’t get in unless he pays membership fees, and he doesn’t have enough. The whole movie is littered with talk about money: how much he and Susan are making in tips, how much Susan’s engagement ring cost, the price of the hot dogs Michael orders from a street vendor while he stalks Susan from the sidewalk. Susan makes plush stuffed pigs to earn “a few extra bob,” and will eventually take some kind of financial security in marriage, but what will Michael do?
Susan tells him that if he plays things right, he can earn a lot of tips, not only from female clients but some of the men, too. She holds back from being explicit, not because Deep End is being coy about its sex-charged subject matter, but because to spell out what she means she’d be admitting to herself that she does it (whatever it is), too. You don’t have to do anything, she tells Michael, just let the customers use their imaginations. It’s a murky border to navigate, the one between selling yourself as a sexual object and prostituting yourself outright. Later in the film, Susan will become a literal sexual object when Michael finds a topless wooden cutout of her outside a strip club and confronts her with it. He steals the image from the club and hides in a brothel where sex is readily available, but only so that he's only there so that he can hang onto the image of Susan. But even as Michael fights to possess the sexual image of Susan, he later demands that she be ashamed of it. He can want it, but she should hate it.
Michael’s sexual awakening is focused exclusively on Susan. Even when an ex-girlfriend turns up and offers herself to Michael, he turns her down, thinking that he’s graduated to someone older like Susan, even though she’s shown only a teasing interest in him. Because she’s the one who’s really turned him on for the first time, he demands that she let him have her, not only by confronting her with her own objectified, possessed image but by other, more severe means.
“What were you doing to her, boy?” Michael is asked. “I love her,” he stammers back. But the dirtiness he perceives in his own sexual drive won’t let him love her and desire her at once, so the object wins out. Michael swims with the nude cutout of Susan in the pool in a sexual fantasy, and when he’s able to bring that fantasy to life, it’s at Susan’s expense.
Deep End is playing at BAMcinematek starting today.