The Deep End

The Deep End, by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is one of the finer independent films of 2001. Crossing noir and melodrama, the film is a fairly close remake of the last of Max Ophuls’ three Hollywood films, The Reckless Moment (1949).

The plot concerns a mother/housewife who is driven to extreme lengths to protect her 17-year-old son. Tilda Swinton gives extraordinary depth and ironic resonance to a role originally played by Joan Bennett. She tries to break up a relationship between her (somewhat naive and immature) son and a sleazy older man. (Changing the gender of the 17-year-old child from a daughter to a son is the most striking difference between the remake and the original). When the older man is killed, Swinton wrongly believes her son has does it, and tries to cover things up. But she only gets into more trouble when a blackmailer shows up, who has a tape of the son having sex with the older man. (Goran Visnjic does a good job as the ambivalent and surprisingly vulnerable blackmailer, though he can’t quite compete with James Mason’s performance in the Ophuls version).

But the film really revolves around Swinton’s performance, the way she portrays someone with good will and determination who is nonetheless too caught in the patriarchal trap to be able to act as a free agent. She will do anything to save her son, and she argues passionately for the dignity of her role and her concerns as a “homemaker” and mother of three children (as well as caretaker for her ailing father-in-law), but the film at the same time underscores how this role leaves her no time to be herself. She is impotent in the face of her husband’s absence–he is a Navy officer, inaccessible on a ship in the mid-Atlantic; but she is also unable to trust and rely upon him, as he is clearly not the sort of person who could understand or “come to terms with” his son’s homosexuality.

In effect, Swinton’s character is called upon to be an action hero, but despite all her spunk and fervor, such a role is forbidden to her, not so much taboo as utterly unthinkable. As the film goes into its final movement, the genre shifts from the (stereotypically) “male” paranoid crime/noir mode to the (stereotypically) “female” melodrama mode, emphasizing the limitations that are built in to the world Swinton inhabits. As she becomes more and more trapped, she is less and less able to act, and finally saved only by the romanticism and vulnerability of the man who originally came to prey upon her.

The film is firmly anchored in the domestic sphere–all the menace of the movie comes from outside this sphere, and at the end the sphere is finally reestablished as a zone of safety, albeit at an emotional price–but it manages to convey, as it were from the inside, the limits of this sphere that the protagonist takes for granted, and that the film itself does not ever seek to transcend. The movie’s analysis of gender and domesticity does not really go any further than Ophuls did in his 1949 film, or than Douglas Sirk did in his brilliant melodramas of the 1950s. But by convicingly moving the action into the present moment, The Deep End does remind us that these dynamics of female entrapment, of domesticity as a prison, are still very much at work in these supposedly liberated times.