"Loves Music, Loves to Dance. Husband Included." - Movie Review Essay: Deep Water (1981)

Loves Music, Loves to Dance. Husband Included.
By Jen Johans

Melanie (Isabelle Huppert) dances with her lover while her husband Vic (Jean-Louis Trintignant) plays chess. Vic eyes the moves she makes as he makes his own five feet away, playing visual chicken with her dance partner who's turned on as hell but doesn't know quite what to do when her husband's in the room. Where should he put his hands? His mouth? He tries using both at once and Vic doesn't flinch.

Vic knows his wife; he's the reason they're dancing, after all. Seeing her restless — sometimes going to change a record, or join another lover at the piano, or follow a third into the woods as if the handsome clarinetist were the Pied Piper — Vic knows he can't begin to keep up with the men, let alone compete with them sexually.

Sex isn't something Vic seems terribly interested in overall in Michel Deville's Deep Water . . . except when it comes to the Delilah to his Samson as Melanie's sexuality seems to fill him with as much disgust as the men hoping to bed his wife right before his eyes. Her naked body — even the sight of one breast exposed when her dress strap breaks — seems to incite obsessive repulsion as does the fact that she refuses to cover up to spite him. For Vic, it isn't misogyny but Melanie. He makes a tentative pass at the sweet wife of one of Melanie's lovers but does so halfheartedly. Facing internal defeat, Vic tells her that she's the type of woman he wants to love but it's no more than a passing thought. The man can't control his nature and love her or hate her (or more likely both), that nature is Melanie.

Raising his young daughter alongside Melanie in a French seaside town, their unusual marital arrangement to stave off divorce is a sudsy open secret. Yet while his wife flourishes in the company of so many adoring men — some of whom their young daughter likes better than others because they come bearing gifts — Trintignant's perfumer prefers to spend what little time he has away from his family with the pet snails that he keeps on their secluded property instead.

Vic observes the little creatures that most would turn into escargot with as much interest as he has watching Melanie and her men dance. Although initially we assume the attraction is because he feels like a sexually humiliated snail of a man, as the film continues, we wonder if his hobby has a different impetus altogether. Perhaps he admires the snails because — like the men who sneak off at parties to change into a bathing suit with his wife or drag their lips slowly down Melanie's neck even if he's nearby — Vic knows he could end their life at any time. In fact, he might have done so already, and not only to the snails. And that's the main thesis that initially piques out interest in Deville's 1981 slow burn psychosexual thriller, which was released in France as Eaux profondes.

Toying with one lover's nerves at a party by taking credit for an unsolved murder after the man thanks Vic for being cool with him dating his wife, we watch as Vic's chess skills spring to life and fear that (more?) violence will follow.

A stellar adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's 1957 eponymous novel from the country that seems to understand how to bring her tales of sexual obsession to life best, Trintignant's restrained yet dynamic portrayal of Vic is magnetic after the very first scene, and we watch him with Vic-like intensity.

Just like French filmmaker Jacques Demy's Model Shop plays particularly well with Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Deep Water feels like it would make a thrilling double feature with Stanley Kubrick's thematically similar tale of marital temptation and warfare, Eyes Wide Shut. Additionally, if you can find it, it's a great one to visit now before Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lyne releases his own adaptation of Highsmith's novel in 2020.

Bringing multilayered complexity to a role that, on paper, reads like a mere strumpet, the way that Isabelle Huppert uses silence and her eyes, combined with the length of time she takes to give someone her verbal or visual attention foreshadows the outstanding work she would do in this (and every) genre in the years to come. A tremendously talented actress perhaps best suited to the many shades of noir, if ever there was a woman born for Highsmith, it's Isabelle Huppert.

Testing the patience of some twenty-first century film fans, Deep Water waits quite awhile to let us in on the first plot twist and longer still before it eventually reveals its whole hand. And while I found myself wishing that Deville would've used even more of the running time to — in taking a cue from Huppert's performance — play up the duality of the proceedings, the '81 feature still works considerably well, nonetheless.

A largely forgotten French neo-noir with a potent antihero turn by Jean-Louis Trintignant, while the film belongs in the great pantheon of unhappily-ever-after movies, its tense, nasty, twisted little plot helps set it apart from the rest, even in scenes where it misses the mark. In the latter respect, it features a fascinating yet unfortunately largely unexplored angle wherein Melanie and Vic's daddy adoring daughter is not only not bothered by rumors that her father might be a killer but is actually proud of it . . . which thrilled and chilled this fan of the genre.

Yet despite a few stumbles, it's safe to say that you'll be easily seduced into dancing along with the film. Just be careful not to stand too close to the edge — or another man's wife — while he watches you squirm and plays chess.

(Availability Note: I recently caught this film on MUBI, where it played for thirty days before disappearing. If you'd like to check out MUBI so you can catch more films like Deep Water, click here to get 30 days free on me.)

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