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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Hot enough? Splash into a sexy, murderous...

Screen Grabs: Hot enough? Splash into a sexy, murderous French classic

Plus: psychedelia two ways, a literal comedy horror, and 'the most melancholic gay porn movie ever'

1969 was a great year for film, in France as much as anywhere else, with new films by Melville, Bresson, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and more. With all that bounty, it’s not surprising that one of that year’s biggest commercial hits should have been lost in in the shuffle of history since, at least outside French-speaking nations. But Jacques Deray’s La Piscine, which is now playing theaters in a restored print, was not just a big hit at the time but further proof (to conservative moral watchdogs, at least) that the movies were going to Hell in a handbasket with all this sex, sex, sex.

Not that there’s anything graphic here beyond some fumbling, plus beaucoups d’innuendo and tanned skin. Romy Schneider does briefly go topless, which would have been a shocker for audiences who still remembered her from the wholesome Sissi costumed romances a decade prior. They would also have been titillated to see the actress reunited with costar Alain Delon, as they’d been a famous offscreen couple for several years previously.

These were by general acknowledgement two of the most beautiful people in the world, if not necessarily the greatest actors (though both were underrated in that respect). The prospect of seeing them both traipse around for two hours in skimpy swimsuits amidst sunstruck erotic (and eventually murderous) intrigue on the Cote d’Azur was, well, box-office catnip. In fact the film’s prospects were considered so bright that it was simultaneously shot in English, rather than being dubbed or subtitled for foreign release later. (The restored version is, however, French with subtitles.)

The two play Marianne and Jean-Paul, unmarried domestic partners who’ve been together for a couple years, each having had other previous long-term liaisons. Now they’re spending the summer at a splendid rural villa with an enormous pool, doing not very much but arousing one another with near-nudity. That pleasant torpor is broken when his old friend and her (unadmitted) old lover, record producer Harry (Maurice Ronet), turns up with the 18-year-old daughter (Jane Birkin as Penelope) nobody knew he had.

Immediately flirtations, jealousies, and petty acts of revenge commence. The hosts ostensibly have an open relationship, but of course such jadedly “sophisticated” attitudes run contrary to their true, easily-bruised feelings. Jean-Paul, in particular, has deep currents of insecurity running beneath his unflappably cool, golden-boy surface. So many little tensions finally culminate in one of the most drawn-out, dispassionate murder scenes in screen history, though La Piscine (aka The Swimming Pool) continues long enough to measure what—if any—consequences such acts might have among the rich and beautiful.

Its atmosphere of dangerous luxury underlined by occasional explosions of overripe lounge music from Michel Legrand, La Piscine is a sort of Who’s Afraid of Alain Robbe-Grillet?, offering mild kinkiness in a mode more diverting than disturbing. These careless, privileged people are just terrible, we’re assured—yet as cast, played, dressed, and undressed, we still want to be them. The decadent appeal was no doubt heightened by scandal: Delon’s bodyguard was found dead during the film’s production, under circumstances that revealed both men’s proximity to gangsters, sex parties, apparent blackmail schemes, and high-ranking politicians. Yet no one was ever charged, and the murder remains officially unsolved—life imitating art, you might say. (Nor did the imbroglio dissuade Delon from making another eight movies with director Deray.)

That saga certainly lends additional frisson a movie much like a perfect chilled cocktail on a dolorous hot day, albeit one that might have a mickey in it. La Piscine is currently playing the Embarcadero, Shattuck Cinemas and Rafael Film Center.

Something else sexy, French and newly taken off a dusty shelf is Equation to an Unknown, an obscure 1980 French gay adult film thought lost (if anyone thought of it at all) until director Yann Gonzalez discovered a print while doing research for Knife + Heart, his 2018 homage to giallo thrillers set in the 1979 Paris porn industry.

I was not a fan of that self-consciously stylized campfest. But Equation—whose 16mm restoration is now available for streaming on the specialty platform PinkLabel.TV, which features many such erotic-esoterica titles—is something else. It was the only film directed by one Dietrich de Velsa aka Francis Savel, whose shadowy career also encompassed being owner/artistic director of a Parisian transvestites’ cabaret, and working in various capacities on two of Joseph Losey’s best later films, the 1976 drama Mr. Klein (with Alain Delon in the title role) and 1979’s Don Giovanni, one of the best-ever screen operas.

Equation doesn’t have a plot, per se. But it does have a structure, however mysterious: A not-entirely-random daisy chain of sexual encounters, any or all of which may be fantasies in the mind of the curly-haired main protagonist (Gianfranco Longhi). From a post-soccer game mini-orgy in the locker room to other exchanges in a railroad shack, a cafe loo, or on a country lane, the sex here has an impulsive anonymity reinforced by its near-complete silence and semi-public settings.

It all takes place in much the same bleak, characterless working-class world as Serge Gainsbourg’s homoerotic Je t’aime moi non plus, with a similar sense of individual alienation. The ease with which the non-characters fall into one orgasmic opportunity after another somehow doesn’t lessen the surrounding world’s desolation one whit, or their solitude within it. (Still, it could be worse: The few older men we glimpse amongst all these 20-year-olds seem forlorn, untouchable.)

Gonzalez aptly called it “the most melancholy porn film I’ve ever seen.” The often striking compositions on grainy film stock have a curious elegance—it’s not surprising that camera assistant Thierry Arbogast went on to a major career, shooting many movies for Luc Besson among others. Spare synthesizer versions of classical themes and dislocated ambient noise on the soundtrack complete this undeniably explicit but also arty and idiosyncratic curio. Info can be found here.

Several other new arrivals likewise offer intriguing mixes of exploitation content and aesthetically or otherwise rarefied treatment:

FINDING OPHELIA

Stephen Rutterford’s first feature begins with several minutes of Rorschach-like twinned images in B&W. Then our hero Will (Jimmy Levar) wakes up, as if he’d dreamed them—but when he walks into the city outside, everything remains equally hallucinogenic, albeit in different ways. Will is ignoring increasingly worried calls from his girlfriend, and from the NYC advertising agency where he works, while obsessed with a vision: A woman (Christina Chu) who may not be alive or real, yet who keeps beckoning to him, often in, near or under water. While friends assume he’s just overdoing “pills and booze,” this sense that he’s being called to from “some other dimension” has its own narcotic—and possible-fatal-overdosing—effect on his fast-unraveling life.

Finding Ophelia (currently in limited theaters, releasing to On Demand platforms Wed/23) is itself an almost literally singular vision, since Rutterford wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, and even composed some music here. There’s no question he has an eye: Quoting Jung in his press-kit director’s statement, he’s made a semi-experimental feature whose frequently arresting images approximate a dream state, one heavy with symbolic portent.

Unfortunately the writing and acting are less considerably less sophisticated than his audiovisual aesthetics, resulting in a film that at its most abstract has an impressive mastery of surrealism, but grows increasingly silly once it settles down to being a more conventional (if still kinda senseless) supernatural thriller. Still, it is definitely recommended for those who enjoy movies with a strong element of psychedelia.

GAIA

The same could be said of Jaco Bouwer’s South African feature, in which ‘shrooms are a significant plot element. Park rangers Gabi (Monique Rockman) and Winston (Anthony Oseyemi) are paddling down a river gathering conservation data when a drone they’re using gets downed in the forest nearby. Separating to retrieve it, Gabi is wounded by a hunter’s trap. She’s then taken in by father-and-son survivalists (Carel Nel, Alex van Dyk) living entirely off-grid in this remote wilderness.

Hairy, scary, and near-feral at first glance, they may seem to be the threat here. But it turns out all these characters are walking on “the largest organism on the planet,” something that was “here long before apes started dreaming of gods.” Oh: And as in 1963 Japanese camp classic (at least in its bowdlerized US version) Attack of the Mushroom People, there are actual attacking mushroom people.

Gaia is hardly campy, though. Instead, it’s a densely textured variation on the “Mother Nature strikes back” horror flicks that have flourished since the 1970s, and which global warming has given new impetus. Even more than such Me Decade cult favorites as Phase IV or the original Long Weekend, Bouwer’s film means to be a trip—its suspense story and explanatory mythology less articulated than the highly worked visuals (in a shifting screen aspect ratio) and soundtrack. Not entirely satisfying as narrative, but original and accomplished as a objet d’genre art, Gaia is currently playing limited theaters, arriving on VOD platforms this Fri/25.

TOO LATE

Definitely a laughing matter by contrast is this first feature from director D.W. Thomas and writer Tom Becker. It’s duly set in the LA comedy-club world, and features numerous real-life veterans from that scene. Violet (Alyssa Limperis) is a fledgling booker of new talent who in order to get ahead in the business works as personal assistant to star comic/impresario Bob Devore (Ron Lynch).

Bob is a monster—no, not just an asshole boss (though he’s certainly that), but an actual… well, let’s just say some particularly obnoxious aspiring stand-ups who gain a private audience with him are never seen or heard from again. Violet doesn’t feel too bad about feeding the odd sexist pig or craven bootlicker to this ogre. But she does mind very much when Bob casts a hungry eye at newcomer Jimmy (Will Weldon), who is talented, nice, and a possible boyfriend.

The acts we glimpse here reminded me that I don’t much like stand-up comedy. But when its characters are offstage, as they are most of the time, Too Late has that flip, droll, quick-witted tenor of comedians riffing amongst themselves. The appealing cast also includes such familiar faces as Fred Armisen and Mary Lynn Rajskub, as well as folks who will probably be familiar if you watch more standup and sketch-humor shows than I do. They’re all good. More of a smart throwaway than anything great, Too Late is nonetheless a likable horror comedy, with considerably more emphasis on the funny part of that equation. It opens in limited theaters and on VOD platforms this Fri/25.

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