Adapting Highsmith #1: Deep Water (Eaux profondes, France 1981)

Vic (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Mélanie (Isabelle Hupert) watch their daughter at a piano recital at school

Vic (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Mélanie (Isabelle Huppert) watch their daughter at a piano recital at school

The touring season of film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s novels and short stories is a brilliant idea. Organised by Edinburgh Filmhouse and supported by Lottery Funding via the BFI, ‘Adapting Highsmith‘ is offering a range of films which have been showing since July in selected arthouses across Scotland and England. In some cinemas, screenings are still scheduled for September and at the Rio in London in October. Check dates on the tour’s website (which also gives background on each of the films and more about the season).

Eaux profondes is based on a 1957 Highsmith novel with the action transposed from North America to the island of Jersey – a location that can be both Anglophone and Francophone, though this film is confined to French dialogue. Vic Allen (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is an artisan perfumier with his own commercial laboratory. His younger wife Mélanie (Isabelle Huppert) appears to be a ‘lady of leisure’ and Vic does most of the parenting of their 8 year-old daughter Marion. The marriage does not appear to be going well. Mélanie provokes her husband at every possible opportunity, flirting with a succession of young men at parties and inviting them to dinner, late night drinking and dancing, literally under her husband’s nose. Vic appears to tolerate this behaviour and calmly tells the men that if he doesn’t like them he may well ‘bump them off’. They don’t know whether to believe him – one of Mélanie’s former conquests has been murdered, but Vic hasn’t been charged. Is this strange marriage for real? Is it a form of sadomasochistic behaviour by the couple? If so who is the dominant/controlling partner? Can the relationship survive in this way or is it heading for a crisis? Perhaps most importantly, what is the impact on Mélanie’s ‘victims’ and the community more generally?

Vic tries to feed Mélanie breakfast after she's spent the night on the couch with her latest conquest.

Vic tries to feed Mélanie breakfast after she’s spent the night on the couch with her latest conquest.

‘La Huppert’ was in her late twenties when she made this film and with her elfin look she might be a very beautiful boy if she wasn’t dressed immaculately in a succession of outfits which, while remaining elegant throughout, she manages to slip out of – sometimes in public. Trintignant was the great lover of the 1960s with a sometimes dark and brooding presence. Here he plays a cuckold who appears at different times to be controlled and composed but at other times to be on the edge of exploding. He is also not averse to flirtation if the opportunity arises.

The films in the season appear to be new DCPs. I found Eaux profondes to be very watchable with strong colours (Huppert wears scarlet or blindingly white outfits in several scenes). The weakest element of the presentation was the sound which seemed very loud and overly ‘bright’, lacking the subtlety of a stereo soundtrack. The film reminded me of the many medium-budget French films that made it over to the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, characterised by strong casts, attractive locations and a middle-class milieu. Highsmith has always appealed more strongly to European sensibilities and there are aspects of these adaptations that probably wouldn’t work for mainstream American releases – one American IMDB user describes Eaux profondes as ‘disgusting’. I think that the only film from the prolific director Michel Deville to make it over here was La lectrice (1989), but we have seen other bourgeois thrillers/melodramas from two of the directors of these Highsmith adaptations, Claude Chabrol (The Cry of the Owl, 1987) and Claude Miller (This Sweet Sickness, 1977). Both these directors have also made Ruth Rendell adaptations.

A moment of crisis at a party in a hotel. Vic calls the police. Mélanie has fallen out of her dress in the background, but nobody seems bothered.

A moment of crisis at a party in a hotel. Vic calls the police. Mélanie has fallen out of her dress in the background, but nobody seems bothered.

Eaux profondes does seem familiar, perhaps because of Chabrol – though there is also that sense that Jim Bergerac, the Jersey-based UK TV detective might turn up at any moment (Bergerac began broadcasts in the UK in 1981). If it was Chabrol, I would expect more about the perfume business. As it is, I think now that more might be made of the couple’s relationship with their daughter Marion – a remarkably well-adjusted and cheerful child given her parents’ strange marriage. The closing scenes of the film deserve more study. I haven’t read the novel but it seems that Deville changed the ending. The film succeeds I think because of the performances. As well as the child it is difficult to think of a stronger couple of actors for this kind of film. Huppert in particular has made so many films that have never made it to UK cinemas or have only appeared briefly. I’m looking forward to her two releases this Autumn in Elle and Things to Come.

I suspect that Eaux profondes might look particularly odd to modern audiences, especially those steeped in the increasingly ‘realist’ police procedurals that dominate TV across the world. A Highsmith narrative is all about the psychology of the characters. What actually happens in this film would fall down immediately in terms of a forensic examination. Sometimes it’s fun to get back to a world of guilt, fear and chance. Eaux profondes is available on Blu-ray in France according to this useful review – but unfortunately not with English subs. Perhaps Masters of Cinema would consider a UK release?

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3 comments

  1. Joe Swan

    It struck me as a cross between Chabrol and the black comedies of Bertrand Blier, whilst being entirely original and idiosyncratic. Various odd touches – the snails lovingly nurtured in the garage; the moment when Huppert turns round at the bedroom mirror with a painted tear to signify unhappiness, looking like a Pierrot; the almost casual nature of the second murder. The ending is very effective – the unspoken knowledge of what has occurred and the willingness to maintain a facade. The soundtrack of Falla’s Concerto for Harpsichord adds to the tone of icy detachment which is superbly maintained throughout.

    Another Deville film to make it to UK cinemas was Death in a French Garden in about 1986.

    • Roy Stafford

      Thanks for these points – I certainly didn’t know about the other Deville title. I did intend to mention the snails. In one sense they are just ‘odd’, but they are also the subject of a seemingly harmless remark that gets picked up by Marion and challenged and which drives Vic into a frenzied loss of control. I wish a DVD was available because I’m sure the film would repay a second viewing.

  2. keith1942

    The Highsmith adaptations are a good idea, but the transfers are an issue. I think Deep Water in one of the films that have been transferred from some digital or video source. I suspect that explains the sound and the ‘brightness’.
    It now seems the case in the UK that a DCP is no guarantee of image and sound that matches the original release.

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