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The Enduring Allure of La Piscine

by habituallychic

08 . 07 . 22

If you missed the classic French film La Piscine at the Film Forum last summer, you still have a few chances to see it on the big screen at Metrograph this month. I think the reason that the restored film from 1969 ended up running for 18 weeks at Film Forum after only being scheduled for two was because La Piscine was not streaming anywhere online in 2021 and many people weren’t traveling because of Covid. But now you can watch La Piscine, as well as all the special features and interviews from the DVD, on the Criterion Channel which also includes the English version of the film. Criterion Channel offers a generous 14-day free trial if you don’t feel like subscribing to another streaming service.

For those not familiar with French or the film, La Piscine translates to The Swimming Pool. It’s about couple played by Romy Schneider and Alain Delon who are spending their August holiday at a friend’s villa just outside St.Tropez until their idyllic isolation is invaded by someone they both know who brings along his new found teenage daughter. I will try not to give away spoilers for those who have not seen the film.

When I first posed about La Piscine in 2015, I didn’t know that much about the firm. The 50 Years Later documentary and the Alain Delon and Romy Schneider interviews shed valuable insight into what happened before, during, and after production.

One very important fact is that Alain Delon is the one who insisted that Romy Schneider be cast. He said they needed to use her or the film wouldn’t work. Director Jacques Deray wanted Monica Vitti. The producers wanted Vitti or American actress Angie Dickinson. Alain Delon said, “You can use someone else, but if you do, count me out.” They obviously hired Romy.

It’s important to know the backstory of Romy Schneider and Alain Delon to know why the film works so well. Romy who was Austrian had been working in Germany for years and was well know for playing Sissi, an Austrian princess. She met Delon on the film Christine in 1958 started a romance. She caused a scandal by moving to Paris to be with her French lover in 1959 before getting engaged. She’s so associated with French cinema that it’s easy to forget that she’s not French by birth.

It’s been reported that Delon left Schneider in 1963 for for French actress Nathalie Barthélemy with flowers and a note that read, “I have gone to Mexico with Nathalie. Thousand things, Alain”. In reality, Nathalie was pregnant and Alain was going to marry her which he relayed in a longer letter that followed.

Romy met Harry Meyen, a German actor and director in April 1965 at a restaurant opening night in Berlin. He was married, but did not hesitate to divorce his then wife to marry Romy in July 1966 in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, when the actress was five months pregnant. She gave birth to her baby David, in December 1966. 

In 1958, it was Delon who welcomed Schneider at the Orly airport for their first film and almost 10 years to the day in 1968, he welcomed Romy to the Nice airport for La Piscine. You can see from the photos and videos on Criterion Channel, how at ease they seem even though she was married to someone else at the time. You can see that Alain Delon is also carrying a copy of the script in one of the photos before they get on a small plane to St. Tropez.

Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière said in the documentary, “What I liked most about it – and still do – is that it’s a claustrophobic setting but outdoors. A claustrophobic setting without the walls. They’re locked inside but not in a physical sense. Locked inside themselves. I liked that idea right off. Plus the idea of just four characters, and making a film with Jacques whose technical skill I greatly admired – I liked all that.”

The villa with the famous swimming pool used in the film still exists in the l’Oumède area in Ramatuelle. Unfortunately, it does not appear to be available to rent now.

At the opening of the film, we see Alain Delon lounging by the pool. One reason that La Piscine screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière thought the film might last was because everyone was in bathing suits which never go out of fashion.

Jane Birkin who plays Penelope, the daughter of Harry Lannier played by Maurice Ronet in the film said in an interview, “La Piscine was a mainstream success yet it’s as refined as an art house film.”

It’s also been used as inspiration for countless photoshoots and a few other films. Lachlan Bailey photographed Brad Pitt for GQ in October 2019 and he and stylist George Cortina used many Hollywood heartthrobs as inspiration for the photos including Alain Delon in La Piscine.

This scene is so iconic that Dior actually used it for their Eau Savage ad campaign in addition to other vintage black and white photos of the actor.

Alain Delon wears sunglasses in a lot of his films but none are as well known as those in La Piscine. The sunglasses are the Vuarnet Legend 06 style that are still available today. When filmmaker Luca Guadagnino remade the film into A Bigger Splash in 2105, he or the costume designer had Matthias Schoenaerts wear the same Vuarnet sunglasses. They are even worn by Daniel Craig as James Bond.

Matthias Schoenaerts also wears navy espadrilles in the same manner as Alain Delon with the backs smashed down so they can be easily slipped on and off.

Delon called La Piscine “a classic, a cult film. It couldn’t fail to be. There’s just something about it. The cars and such don’t matter. It feels contemporary. And above all, it’s due to Romy.” 

When Alain and Romy are on the screen together, the chemistry is palpable.

The villa in Ramatuelle had been used for the filming of Two for the Road with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney that was released in 1967, just a year before filming began on La Piscine.

It’s interesting to wonder if director Jacques Deray had seen the film since the stance of Romy standing over Alain looks similar to Albert standing over Audrey.

If I ever build a pool, it will look exactly like this one.

The film was released on 31 January 1969 and maybe part of the appeal besides seeing Romy and Alain as lovers on screen was seeing a summer film in the middle of winter.

There’s an image of this scene with Romy wearing a scarf over her hair which would not have been nearly as sexy so I’m glad it was changed.

Romy wrote a letter to her friend Christiane Höllger dated 23 August 1968 which was just after filming began which I’ve translated to English and paired with candid photos from the filming.

Your letters always give me immense pleasure, so please, one a week! It feels good! The work, I am almost afraid to say it – is sensational! – I am free like never before (except with Orson Welles) and Delon behaves very “correctly” (and it’s not a joke) so I just have to hope that the atmosphere will not change. Tonight, I attended a first screening of rushes – everything is ok – I look good, especially in a black bikini, in the water – I’m well tanned – even more!

During the screening, Delon kept screaming – Oh, what is beautiful this woman – this girl – my faith, the others also judged that I was beautiful – who would not hear that with pleasure! Cameraman first class, I like the director very much too – that he is able to direct actors, I haven’t realized it yet – it’s not Kazan, but before he tries to become one, it’s better for him to let us do it… it’s smarter and he’s far from stupid – moreover, we don’t find a single beginner in his cast. In recent days we haven’t filmed much – but now it’s going to start.

We have already started with a hell of a makeout session – without dialogue – and it seems “very exciting” to me (as much as I can judge by today’s projection); not free or cheap. Alain could not help but make his usual spiritual remarks; at the passage of this scene, but perhaps it was very good (if it was intentional; many attitudes are perfectly innocent in him, even when they seem animated by intentions) – it reminds me of the good old days, etc., and other idiocies that he was unable to keep for him when I lie down against him dripping and in bikini – I soon took a cold snap – in my stomach – and I dive, and I get out of this pool, I don’t know how many times – you’re talking about a job! – you know, everything is not always ugly and I would like you to be a little mouse; you could enjoy the show of this circus.

I like this role enormously and I play it thoroughly in the way I represent this Marianne – and that’s all – and that’s a lot because there are few good roles, so you think I’ll exploit this lucky break! The team is sensational – all charming – so come quickly – You can write and come and see me there, I would like to – but not out of vanity! – my Christiane – I will never succeed in writing everything to you and I have to tell you…

Lachlan Bailey and stylist George Cortina were also inspired by the candid photos from the filming of La Piscine when they photographed Brad Pitt for the cover of GQ for October 2019 with the green towel over his head.

The most iconic image from La Piscine.

It’s rather remarkable that Alain Delon is still alive at the age of 86 when he smoked so much.

The Maserati Ghibli sports car owned by Harry who’s a music producer in the film.

The costume coordinator on the film was Christine Beytout who was the wife of the producer of the film Gérard Beytout. Jane Birkin says she was told to bring her own clothes which are the ones that look the most dated in the film compared to the others.

There are a lot of very contemporary 1960s furnishings inside and outside the villa in La Piscine. The very 60s yellow garden furniture are Locus Solus by Gae Aulenti for Poltronova. The chairs, bench, and table are available on 1stdibs if you want the look for your own house.

Another star of this film is tan skin.

A terrible review of La Piscine for The New Yorker called Romy and Alain “a nearly middle-aged couple” which is ridiculous. Romy turned 30 years old during filming and Alain would turn 33 right after. One look at the avatar of the writer of the story is enough to tell you that he will never understand this film.

Since Jane Birkin confessed that she was told to bring her own clothes to the filming, it’s easy to believe that others in the film might have as well.

Alain Delon was photographed in St. Tropez with Brigitte Bardot on 1 August 1968 in the same swim trunks and shirt that he is later seen wearing in the film that shot a few weeks later. I did see some images of him wearing a chain in La Piscine but I’m glad they made the decision for him to not wear it in the film.

One the most interesting things about La Piscine is that the French and English language versions of the film were made at the same time with the actors filmed speaking English for the international release. It was unusual at a time when movies were always either dubbed or subtitled. Also for the English version, director Jacques Deray made his edits based on performances, rather than doing a shot-by-shot re-creation of the French version.

A candid shot taking during filming.

La Piscine was the start of a great period of filmmaking for Romy Schneider who went on to make some of my favorite French films with director Claude Sautet like Les Choses de la Vie and César and Rosalie.

Photographer Lachlan Bailey and stylist George Cortina need to find some new inspiration. They were also inspired by La Piscine for a photoshoot for Jennifer Lawrence for the December 2021 issue of Vanity Fair. They were even inspired again by a candid photo taken during production.

My suggestion would be to watch La Piscine in French and English since the American version has a different ending. Then watch The Swimming Pool with Charlotte Rampling which is inspired by La Piscine but makes it a completely different thriller. Follow it up with A Bigger Splash by Luca Guadagnino starring Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, and Dakota Johnson.

There are times that watching Romy and Alain on screen feels like you’re looking into the center of the sun. The chemistry is the real star of the film.

The screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière said in his interview that there is only nine pages of dialogue. So much of the film is about a look or a feeling rather than talking. The director Jacques Deray had said something very enlightening to him for his career as a writer. Jacques “had just made a film with Michel Audiard and he said the script was very good. But with Audiard’s dialogue, ‘the words are the stars, not the actors. When there is dialogue, your camera must be on the speaker or the person listening. It takes your camera prisoner. You can’t film around the dialogue. It would be like banishing the star from the screen’.”

Jacques Deray also said something to Jean-Claude Carrière that he wrote down, “the less dialogue you write, the more you force me to use my imagination as a director.”

Everything is perfection about Romy Schneider in La Piscine.

French fashion designer André Courrèges who had worked for Cristóbal Balenciaga before going out on his own created many custom pieces for the film including swimsuits worn by Romy.  

Filming of La Piscine began on 19 August and finished 19 October 1968 which might account for some of the non-swimsuit fashions.

It was fun to see all these old cars in this scene.

I’ve definitely seen dresses inspired by this one in the last 10-15 years.

I couldn’t find the brand of these sunglasses but Alain Delon is seen wearing them in Paris after filming so perhaps they were also his own personal sunglasses.

I think the Undressing a Legacy documentary talks about this furniture in the film.

This outfit could be worn today and it would not look dated at all.

The enduring legacy is the chicness of every little detail.

I always pop the collar of my blue shirts like Romy.

The hair with this dress is the one of only a few times that Romy looks very 1960s.

Alain Delon made films in French, Italian, and English although, he didn’t become popular in Hollywood which was disappointing to him since he was such a star in France. Romy speaks some German in one scene of the English version of the film and even some English in the French version. Jane Birkin was English and had just started dating Serge Gainsbourg before filming La Piscine. She says her French was not great but obviously become much better as her relationship continued and she stayed in France.

A scene where saying nothing says a lot.

I always joke that everything in Paris is about seduction. You can’t buy something in a store without having to seduce the shopkeeper into letting you buy it. La Piscine is the height of seduction.

Delon looks timeless here but the dresses definitely look very 60s.

Romy and Alain also worked together on Plein Soleil (Purple Noon in English) which was a 1960 crime thriller film directed by René Clément, loosely based on the 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.

Showtime is currently filming another adaptation of the book for Ripley, a tv series, starring Andrew Scott, Johnny Flynn, and Dakota Fanning. It should air in 2023.

Another timeless look from Romy.

What started out as what I thought would be a simple blog post has taken a week of work. Once I started digging into the film, I kept unearthing more interesting facts and information. I’ve also watched La Piscine many times and each time, I see something new. I feel bad for writer from The New Yorker who couldn’t appreciate the subtleties this film.

“It’s too hard. I could never watch La Piscine again. That would be impossible. The three people I loved have gone: Romy, Deray and Ronet. I know the film off by heart. I can recite every line before it’s even uttered,” Alain Delon said before pausing. “To hear Romy say, ‘I love you’, when she is no longer with us, I just can’t bear it.”

Alain Delon remembered David being on the set of La Piscine with Romy, as seen above.

Romy Schneider died at the age of 43 in 1982 from an apparent heart attack. She had sunk into a deep depression after the suicide of her first husband in 1979 and then began drinking heavily after the tragic accidental death of her 14 year old son David in 1981.

After her death, Alain Delon wrote her a heartbreaking letter, the contents of which he did not reveal until many years later: “I watch you sleep. I am next to you, by your bedside. You are wearing a long black and red tunic, embroidered on the bodice. They are flowers, I believe, but I do not look at them. Say goodbye, longest farewell, my puppelé. That’s what I called you. It meant “little doll” in German.“

He did not attend her funeral because he didn’t want to be the target of photographers. Instead he went to meditate at her grave a few days later to be alone with her. He also arranged for her son David to be buried in the same grave as her.

“She became the great love of my life, the first, a wonderful love. One is always marked by his first love, I think. Before, I had relationships but there, it was the first real love. And, of course, it always leaves mark.” – Alain Delon

The American version of La Piscine is titled The Swimming Pool: “First Love Never Dies”.