This Jerzy Skolimowski essay contains spoilers for Deep End (1970) and The Shout (1978). Check out the VV home page for film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.
Jerzy Skolimowski is a strange filmmaker who has managed to avoid easy categorization. Initially associated with the Eastern-European New Wave movements, the Polish director’s work has become boundless as much by the shifting surroundings he has found himself in as by his daring, new narrative style inspired by mentors such as Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski, as well as by friends like Miloš Forman and Andrzej Munk. After a string of highly successful Polish films — including his debut feature that stitched together the short films created during his time at the Łódź Film School— the Stalinist themes in Hands Up! (filmed in 1967 yet released in 1981) effectively expelled Skolimowski from then communist Poland. He resettled in London, living next door to Jimi Hendrix, a move that would prove to spark a creative shift in his work and ultimately forced him to be more daring in scale and narrative.
As Jerzy Skolimowski lived and worked in many different countries, his work ultimately started to bear the hallmarks of an auteurist filmmaker. Deep End and The Shout in particular utilize the British landscape to great effect, borrowing from (yet also improving) an already established use of landscape that shaped British cinema at that period, with Blow Up (1966), Performance (1970), Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and The Wicker Man (1973) being a few prime examples. While Deep End and The Shout portray deeply rich narratives that work with layered storylines and chronological time shifts, the films’ primary structural devices come from an interrogation of and navigation around landscapes and spaces. As an outsider in exile in the UK, Skolimowski seems unfettered by the memorialization or appraisal of landscape — unlike British Heritage Cinema — ultimately choosing to use place for more mythological and layered means. By coming at the British landscape from an outsider’s perspective, Skolimowski imbues his films with his signature iconographic sense of obscurity and mystique; both Deep End and The Shout grapple with the tensions brought about by characters suddenly entering (and quickly coming to terms with) new environments.
Deep End was the first of six UK-produced films Jerzy Skolimowski made between 1970 and 1991, while his subsequent movies, The Shout and Moonlighting (1982), are often considered his best (and most accessible) work. Set inside a dilapidating public swimming baths at the center of Soho, although filmed primarily in Munich, Deep End is a heartbreaking study of adolescent loneliness as John Moulder-Brown’s youthful protagonist, Mike, navigates his new job with the help of Jane Asher’s Susan, who is both alluring yet manipulative, prying on the protagonist’s innocent vulnerability for her own infidelities. Mike’s initial psychological state seamlessly mirrors the loss he finds himself in when first maneuvering around the narrow corridors of the swimming baths and dealing with the upper-class customers that swipe him away (quite literally) like a dirty cobweb. Despite Susan’s quick, albeit frivolous, tour of the baths at the beginning of Deep End, Mike’s initial sense of loss is still coupled with his lack of a bearing around the building. Drowning, claustrophobia and trying to stay afloat are all some of the obvious connections being drawn between psyche and place that Skolimowski plays with as Mike latches onto the tutelage and wisdom that Susan at first seems to offer. During a seven-day period, Mike’s impressionable naivety quickly escalates into an enveloped obsession for Susan, the innocence of which is made manifest within the sickly green hues that paint the walls of the corridors and rooms. The pastel shades in the wallpaper and its dilapidating state is perhaps an early indicator towards Mike’s largely unstable, transitional frame of mind.
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What could have been another ordinary coming-of-age story is turned on its head by Jerzy Skolimowski’s ability to upend 60s swingin’ London in favor of illuminating its darker edges. The bathhouse, the exteriors of which were shot in Fulham and Leytonstone, was once a monument to Victorian high society but is used as a playground in Deep End for seedy characters and their unpalatable sexual urges, epitomized most by a scarily perverted swimming instructor who preys on his half-dressed female students before patting them into the pool. Ultimately, the film depicts the glamour of the swingin’ 60s as dwindling, with Diana Dors’ great cameo in particular acting as a signpost to how sexual revolution has turned into a desperate clamor for cheap thrills. Mike, perhaps unfortunately, has arrived at the bathhouse too late, as his own sexual appetite fails to match Susan’s already well-established sexual liberation, a freedom of which Mike is unable to fully comprehend. Overall, the male character’s repression acts as the antithesis to Susan’s oft fluid and easily casual sexual exploits. Mike’s attempts to meet Susan on her own terms sees him stalk her around the streets of Soho, where he eventually finds a cardboard cut-out of a naked prostitute, the image of which resembles Susan and sends the protagonist into a frenzy. “It cannot be you… because you’re not like that,” Mike persists as he confronts Susan on an underground train, desperate to both reveal his love for her and uncover her true character, which — up until this point — had largely been hidden under a confident and highly volatile facade.
Mike’s realization of Susan’s infidelity is mirrored in the walls of the swimming baths as its sickly green interior is slowly painted over with a harsh and vibrant red: the color of lust or, worse, blood. The second half of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End rarely sees Mike tend to customers, swapping the changing rooms and the sexual fantasies of the upper-class women with the protagonist’s own fantastical imagination by the side of the swimming pool, the location of which draws a questionable connection between him and other characters that frequent it, like the instructor. After confronting Susan on the underground, Mike rushes off with the cardboard prostitute and throws it into the pool; now naked, he engages with the cut-out as it morphs, in slow motion, from cardboard into the real Susan, a fantastical foreshadowing of what is to come in the film’s finale. Under the water, the image is now hazy through the mirage of the pool, Susan now imperceptible, ultimately nodding towards Mike’s increasing inability to distinguish fantasy from reality.
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It is only by the end of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End that a perspective shift fully takes place as Susan, now a sympathetic figure, takes a phone call from her fiancée, leaving Mike to undress himself inside the empty pool. The tragic end to the film, accompanied by Cat Stevens’ “But I Might Die Tonight” from the opening credits, brings the narrative full circle as Skolimowski builds tension by reintroducing previously used pieces of iconography. A whistling kettle, a swinging lamp and Susan’s forlorn presence — all things found in Deep End’s amazingly hectic opening scene — present Mike with a series of obstacles as he tries to navigate Susan’s reluctance towards him. After trying to find an engagement ring, Mike soon realizes the opportunity to exploit Susan’s new-found vulnerability as he, perhaps for the first time, starts to administer his own authority on the situation, represented by how steadfast he remains as the pool starts to refill with water. Deep End ends abruptly as Susan attempts to leave the pool before Mike angrily hurls the lamp in her direction, leaving the water, like the walls of the baths, to slowly turn from an azure into a deep red color. Susan’s poetic demise could have been predicted if attention had been paid to Skolimowski’s playful use of setting and mise-en-scène as Mike’s unstable psychological state rapidly changes. When Deep End initially released, people complained about the abruptness of the film’s ending, yet Skolimowski once again uses a change of pace and intelligent editing techniques in order to pack a greater punch, with Mike finally throwing himself headfirst into the deep end of freewheeling, swingin’ London, only to find that it is actually shallow and that its fun-loving hedonism had run its course and turned sour.
Similar to Deep End, Jerzy Skolimowski’s structure of The Shout is built around the antagonism between its protagonists and their own navigation around landscapes and settings. Whereas Deep End’s narrative plays out mostly inside the confines of the swimming baths, The Shout adopts the strangeness of a coastal setting as its backdrop, where its characters’ impotence is manifested in the location’s vast space. Told in flashbacks, the main bulk of the film is set amongst a Devon coastal village and follows avant-garde composer Anthony Fielding (John Hurt) as he tries to make something of his experimental music that amplifies and distorts ordinary, day-to-day sounds into obscure harmonies. After arriving late to his job as the organist at the town’s church, Anthony stumbles upon Crossley (played menacingly by a large Alan Bates), who follows the protagonist home and pleads for a place to stay. Both characters, in some way or another, are dealing with a sense of loss (much like the younger Mike in Deep End); however, Anthony’s futility is only intensified by the introduction of the more assured Crossley, who manages to worm his way into, and whose presence takes hold of, Anthony’s life. Similar to Deep End’s Susan, there is an allure to Crossley, although Anthony deals with him with trepidation, seeing him as the outsider and a disruption to the simple, content existence that he has created for himself.
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Aptly, Anthony lives a bike ride outside of the village, secluded with his wife, Rachel (Susannah York), in a cottage that sits amongst a barren, undulating landscape; the village and its farmlands rest to one side, the cliffs and ocean horizon to the other, whilst Anthony, almost symbolically, lies within an eerie threshold — the liminal space — between the two. Crossley momentarily breaks into this space, acting as the catalyst for Anthony to start reassessing his life by methodically controlling the couple who worries about a deadly shout. The use of the strange coastal landscape was nothing new come 1978, having already been famously used in films like The Wicker Man that exploited the often isolated and idiosyncratic nature of coastal thresholds. M. R. James and the BBC TV adaptations of his stories, such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) or A Warning to the Curious (1972), had also turned coastal villages into places where unlikely things could be lurking under the sea or sand if ill-judged decisions were made. Skolimowski may or may not have been aware of this growing British tradition yet still managed to sprinkle in his signature style through his unique navigation of the setting, being able to both ground his narrative away from the paranormal whilst also leaning heavily on the dreamlike and the weird.
Whereas films like The Wicker Man exploit coastal settings for their quaint isolation, making outsiders tread carefully amongst the unknown landscape and the unusual locals that reside there, Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout breaks that mould by manifesting the unknown and the unsettling through Crossley, whose abrupt entrance and wild statements assert a power dynamic early on. At first, Anthony’s interest in experimental music draws him towards Crossley’s claim of supernatural sonic abilities; his initial disbelief initiates an overly drawn-out journey over sand dunes, hills and fields that surround the Parish Church as Bates’ character aims to demonstrate his death shout in a place far away enough that nobody would be harmed. The distinctively English village and rural setting that introduces the characters is frequently undermined in The Shout through a strange framing of landscape and the use of absurdities that often disrupt the scenery, like the mirage of the Aboriginal Shaman that haunts the beach. These unique details help smudge the film’s authenticity and largely alienates the relationship between the characters and their environment, enhanced further by the central connection between Crossley and the Australian outback where he learnt his supernatural magic. The beach, with its starkness and dusty sand dunes, often looks otherworldly, like Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 fever dream film Walkabout. Crossley’s insistence, coupled with the scene’s drawn-out length, creates an eerie and unnerving mood while sand dunes start to look like deserts, hilltops like mountains, the rocky beaches like vast, outer-space craters. Anthony is frequently seen struggling to walk around this strange and unrecognizable landscape as if fully transported elsewhere outside of his comfortable Devon home.
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After the walk, Crossley finally stops atop an unreasonably large sand dune with the sea in view behind him and demands Anthony to pad his ears with cotton so that he will be unharmed by the sound before preparing himself for the shout. Jerzy Skolimowski frames Crossley from an extremely low angle, accentuating his large frame which almost blocks out the sun from against the skyline. His shout, that was apparently the make up of 40 separate shout sounds layered over one another in post production, is horrifically loud, especially in comparison to the largely muted build up over the fields and sand dunes. One of the first films to make full use of Dolby Surround Sound, The Shout’s body contortion visuals reference the figure from Francis Bacon’s Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) that Anthony keeps pinned to his wall. Nearby, sheep and a local shepherd are seen collapsing to the floor — Crossley was telling the truth — while Anthony falls down the dune in slow motion, again nodding towards another of Nic Roeg’s films, this time The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), further making a connection between the alien and the real. The scene is also reminiscent of John Schlesinger’s central sequence in his 1967 adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd (famously starring a brilliant Julie Christie, Terrance Stamp and even The Shout’s Bates), in which a face off between Bethsheba Everdene and Frank Troy amongst a Dorset hill fort is equally absurd and strange as its characters are allowed the space to use odd body contortions and dance-like choreography in order to interact with one another. It’s as if the unnatural and the weird can be rendered natural and normal while in the privacy of barren and bare scenery.
Despite Jerzy Skolimowski’s central triangle in The Shout, there is a clear dualism at play between the two male characters: both have associations with sound (Anthony’s failing music career/Crossley’s death noise); one is smaller in stature, one notably larger; one is meek and shy, the other confident and charismatic; one is the unaffectionate husband (despite his visible infidelity), whilst the other is the sexy and exotic outsider. Anthony’s association with the church, too, forms a binary between his spiritual and religious leanings with Crossley’s connection to Aboriginal magic that detaches him from moral and rational thought. Through this reading, Anthony, and his quaint existence by the coast, embodies notions of order, civility and rationality, while Crossley’s strange, ambiguous entrance disrupts that order and sends The Shout into chaos and disrupts the audience’s perception of the landscape. Anthony’s last attempt to regain control takes him back to the sand dunes as he hurriedly tries to unearth a small rock while Crossley demands Rachel to fend off a man with a gun he assumes is there to kill him: the external manifestation of dread finally turns on Crossley as his demise, like Susan’s in Deep End, is largely hinted at through props and iconography. In an almost ritual-like fashion, Anthony smacks the stone against the heal of a leather shoe — apparently one of Crossley’s “soul-stones,” although this detail is never fully disclosed — causing a physical response in Crossley back in Anthony’s home. The Shout’s conclusion affirms the importance of landscape and setting as Anthony returns to the sand dunes; a reappraisal of the natural landscape ultimately becomes the cause, or initiation, of Crossley’s exodus from his life.
The Shout is bookended in the grounds of a local mental asylum where Crossley is seen retelling the story of his death shout to Tim Curry’s visitor, Robert Graves, while Anthony is now seen as one of the asylum’s inmates. One can only assume that Deep End’s Mike suffers the same fate as Anthony, as his initial sense of loss turns into a driven monomania and his relationship with Susan escalates at such a rate that he fails to get a grip on reality or the landscape around him. And the fact that filming took place in both London and Munich adds to the strange sense of placelessness. Whereas Mike’s new environment throws him wildly off track, Anthony’s Devon home in The Shout forces him into an unstable and spiraling monomania. Each character’s mental state is amazingly mirrored within the landscape as neither is ever fully perceptible or clearly recognizable amongst Skolimowski’s use of psychedelic and feverish editing techniques that ultimately ground the landscapes within a strange realm, outwardly visualizing Mike and Anthony’s psychological instability. Or perhaps it is the landscape, and Skolimowski’s framing of it, that creates psychological instability in the first place. Either way, whether it be in the center of Soho or on the coastal threshold of a quaint Devon village, no place in England is ever fully safe from the peculiar and mysterious handling of a filmmaker like Jerzy Skolimowski.
Edwin Miles (@eaj_miles) is a filmmaker, screenwriter and documentarian from the West Midlands, United Kingdom. Now based in London, Edwin’s experimental work reflects on ideas of family and memory, home and displacement. His favourite filmmakers include Derek Jarman, David Lynch and Kazuhiro Sôda.
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