A swimming pool after nightfall can be a sinister place. In that, it’s like almost any venue designed for daytime pleasures—a shuttered amusement park, a deserted playground. But the specific menace of a private pool, one perhaps screened by trees that catch pockets of cooling evening air in their leaves, is faintly erotic. Bright water that holds the daytime memory of bare, slick skin turns to black mirror: a surface that reflects and inverts. And so, in Jacques Deray’s La piscine (1969), what is sex by day becomes death by night, when, from the same poolside spot where he frolicked earlier with his girlfriend, Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) kills Harry (Maurice Ronet) in a crime of passion notable for its dispassion.
This perversely listless murder was not the first time that Delon had sent Ronet to a watery grave. In René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960), based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, Delon became a star playing the insolent, insolvent Tom Ripley. With a razor grin slashing the sharp planes of his perfect face into a snarl, and the sun sparkling high in the sky, Tom knifes his wealthy friend Philippe (Ronet) in the stomach and pitches his body over the edge of a trim sailboat into an implacably blue Mediterranean. Then he eats a peach.
Almost a decade later, in the first of his nine collaborations with Deray, Delon forces Ronet under the teal waters of the pool on the darkened grounds of a Saint-Tropez villa. The villa in La piscine, like the sailboat in Purple Noon, is borrowed territory, a signifier of the eternally-at-leisure class to which both Delon characters feel entitled to belong. Both murders are opportunistic but also premeditated—note the deliberate way that Jean-Paul slips off his shoes by the pool’s edge; see the blade that Tom has stashed in the seat lining—and both are motivated by the same prideful envy, the same piqued ego and thwarted privilege. And in both films, Ronet plays a romantic rival: in La piscine, the two men bare their teeth and beat their chests over Delon’s real-life ex-lover Romy Schneider, as Jean-Paul’s girlfriend, Marianne, and Jane Birkin, as Harry’s coltish eighteen-year-old daughter, Pénélope. Each time, Delon’s permafrost eyes conceal his character’s intentions until the victim’s last gasp, and if, in La piscine, Jean-Paul does not messily devour a peach to signal an animalistic lack of remorse after the fact, he does the next best thing: he goes to sleep.
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