We open on a body. Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) lounges shirtless on the bare concrete that surrounds his villa-bound pool on the French Riviera, a period of welcome seclusion abruptly broken by a call from his girlfriend, Marianne (Romy Schneider). Out of frame, she leaps into the pool to join his reverie outside and yet utterly ruptures it. Marianne splashes Jean-Paul unceremoniously, clad in her black, two-piece bathing suit. She laughs, swims across the rippling waters and climbs out, saunters over to the still-reclining Jean-Paul, head cocked, hips swaying. As she approaches him, the camera traverses Marianne’s wet body, from her head down to her thighs, which Jean-Paul reaches out to caress as she stands above him, dapples of pool water glistening against her skin in the light of the summer sun. The camera does not objectify Marianne, it reveres her—it is emblematic of her control, as she positions herself in a place of power over Jean-Paul. Then, she descends to the concrete to meet him as a momentary equal, their bare bodies resting on top of one another and entwining before they are unbalanced once more.
The opening sequence of French director Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine (translated in English to The Swimming Pool) is a simmering capsule of quiet eroticism and tension. A slice of sexually charged serenity that precludes the ensuing 119 minutes of festering unease, envy and anger—all leading to murder. La Piscine centers on couple Jean-Paul and Marianne, who have been together for a little over two years. They are vacationing at their French villa when they receive a chance visit from Marianne’s former lover and the couple’s old friend, Harry Lannier (Maurice Ronet). Harry is accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin) with whom he was previously estranged, and whose existence neither Jean-Paul nor Marianne knew about until the pair’s arrival.
Over the course of their time together, bitterness heightens between the four of them: Harry belittling Jean-Paul due to jealousy towards his coupling with Marianne; Jean-Paul jealous of Harry’s romantic history with Marianne; Marianne harboring complicated, unspoken feelings for Harry. Spacy, yet beautiful Penelope, meanwhile, floats on the fringes of her excursion with Harry, no longer a child but not yet a woman. Because of this, she catches the wandering eyes of both Jean-Paul and her own father, who occasionally behaves incestuously towards his newly reconciled daughter.
It is an interesting film to consider when compared to the state of cinema today, where perfectly sculpted action hero bodies proliferate cineplexes as the ideal of the human form—fully clothed, PG-13 weapons that should demand to be embraced yet don’t partake in acts of intimacy. Instead, they operate in service of the American government, completely bereft of the natural sensuality their taut bodies might exude. And despite how sexless popular cinema has become, there is still an undaunted crusade against sex and sexuality in cinema. Indeed, it seems as if every week, someone goes viral for arguing that there is still too much sex in film—that sex scenes are “unnecessary” and “don’t progress the plot.”
Such sentiments are met with much naysaying, but just as much agreement—to the point where legendary erotic thriller director Paul Verhoeven recently spoke out against this regression to Puritanism in the United States in particular prior to the Cannes release of his lesbian nun thriller, Benedetta. Yet such scenes like the passionate motel coitus between Thelma (Geena Davis) and J.D. (Brad Pitt) in Ridley Scott’s 1991 blockbuster Thelma and Louise doesn’t even exist in mainstream film anymore. To find sexuality in American cinema, one must look to the outer reaches; even then, many such scenes are still bereft of the patient intimacy afforded to the sex scenes of yesteryear, eager to pull away from the act once it’s finished. The camera less frequently preoccupies itself with the body like it once did, no longer interested in messy, awkward touching or unflattering angles. Sex scenes are confident, quick and entirely unsexy. In La Piscine, there is no filmed sexual intercourse, yet every scene oozes lust and desire—none more so than the opening sequence.
Though the entire film beats to the drum of blistering sexuality, this first scene condenses this atmosphere and an entire story in a tight five, salacious minutes. It succinctly captures Marianne and Jean-Paul’s relationship in a series of mere body movements and camera angles, while foreshadowing the climax of the film. But even more than that, it is five minutes of pure celebration of the body, aching with desire and stifled resentment, acting almost like a separate film within the film. The scene basks both in admiration and awe of the human form, what it can do, and what it exudes simply by the mere act of existing. But in this first five minutes of La Piscine, there is no gratuitous nudity or even suggestive dialogue – there is very little dialogue at all. Marianne and Jean-Paul are toned, but not unrealistically. They are beautiful, but they look like normal people. They don’t fuck, but the sequence is devastatingly horny. It is a sex scene without any sex, and it is instrumental to the plot of the film.
The sequence is the only true moment of peace for Marianne and Jean-Paul in the entire narrative, before their vacation, their relationship and their lives are upended by the arrival of Harry and Penelope. Even still, this brief respite is quietly fraught with an imbalanced power dynamic. Jean-Paul is emasculated, which comes into focus more throughout the course of the film as he is tormented by Harry and the growing realization of Harry and Marianne’s hidden romantic past, which Marianne had initially shrugged off as “rumors.” Harry taunts Jean-Paul’s decision to leave work as a serious writer for a job in advertising and accuses him of holding Marianne back. In the opening scene, Jean-Paul is shown as only at peace when he is alone, Marianne’s entrance into his small window of paradise depicted as something of an intrusion. As he is for most of the film, Jean-Paul remains quite passive—until he suddenly isn’t. Marianne is aware of the power that she holds over him, symbolized in the way she literally wields her sexuality over him as he lies on his back. She has an eagerness to provoke Jean-Paul in an attempt to bring out his aggression, from jumping into the pool and splashing him, to urging him to scratch her back as they kiss passionately on the poolside concrete.
But the couple’s lovemaking is interrupted by a call from Harry, announcing his arrival. Marianne says she doesn’t know who’s on the phone, yet she is insistent that she leave to answer it. Jean-Paul retaliates to this notion by hurling Marianne into the chlorinated waters—frisky payback for her earlier disruption of his solitude, and also symbolic of Jean-Paul’s repressed rage. It is unclear whether or not Marianne really was expecting this call from Harry (since she kept the nature of her former relationship with Harry a secret from her current lover, it is safe to assume she could’ve been lying), but the scene concludes with Marianne choosing Harry over Jean-Paul, setting the stage for the trajectory of the film. Thus, Jean-Paul’s surprise act of playful hostility towards Marianne portends the climactic pool-pushes that ultimately claim Harry’s life.
In terms of comparing this film to modern-day expectations from either regular moviegoers or new-wave Puritans, I’m aware it’s a bit of an apples-and-oranges situation with regards to La Piscine. The film was released over 50 years ago, but French films and audiences are still far different than those in America. French culture at large is far more comfortable and open when it comes to sexuality. Still, to argue that sexuality and sexual situations do nothing for a film is absurd. Beyond the fact that it is entirely irrelevant whether or not a sex scene does anything for a film’s plot, that the very idea of such necessary plot constraints narrows one’s view towards the possibilities of art, it could easily be argued that plenty of non-sexual situations in films do nothing for the plot. I mean, have you watched a recent studio comedy? More films should just be sexy for the sake of it, as latent societal prudishness angles to regress the industry back to the Hays Code. But even in accordance with the twisted demand for sex scenes to be integral to the narrative, as evidenced by the opening of La Piscine, a sexual sequence might not just be necessary to the plot of a film. It could say everything.
As with real-life sex, sex scenes in film are more than just the act itself. They are an exercise in power dynamics, an exploration of gender, a celebration of flesh; they can tell entire stories just through heavy breathing and body movements. They are also hot as fuck. Sex doesn’t even have to occur for a film to be sexy, yet modern American films outside the studio system seem as reticent as popular cinema to imbue their work with sexuality. Human beings as they exist are not puritanical vessels of absolute goodness. Regardless of whether or not someone has sex, they are on this earth because of that very imperfect, carnal act. It is inseparable from who we are. As Paul Verhoeven said, “Sexuality is the most essential element of nature.” It is imperative that we remember our art should reflect that.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.