ETRANGE 2011: A POOL WITHOUT WATER (1982) review

(Another retro screening from L'Etrange 2011, which I wanted to write a review for since I went in blind, ended up watching the whole thing and enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to.)

Kôji Wakamatsu's A Pool Without Water proves George Carlin right - you can laugh at rape, be it a little uneasily. The legendary Japanese director's 1982 film, about an introverted menial working on the metro who discovers his true calling as a Casanova forcing himself on unconscious women, probably doesn't seem like a comedy. Or much of a turn-on, even, unless you entertain that sort of fantasy. But despite the undeniably disturbing nature of the material, the fact you're essentially watching porn and the unintentional comedy in how badly it dates, A Pool Without Water is plainly the work of a very talented individual - not to mention a thought-provoking, fascinating and, yes, even a funny film.

Yuya Uchida plays an anonymous, lowly ticket-puncher on the Tokyo underground who keeps himself to himself, trudging from home to work and back again while barely paying the world any mind. Yet one night he saves a woman from being gang-raped, fighting off two attackers, and escorting her home. She's clearly ever so grateful, yet something stops him from responding in kind. Nursing his wounds in a public fountain later that night, he meets the woman's roommate (unaware the two are connected) who's so impressed by the stranger's rugged, wordless masculinity she offers herself up to him almost there and then - yet our man still knows whatever he wants, it isn't this.

He wants to be able to offer women tenderness and consideration, yet he can't actually deal with them, you know, talking and stuff - all those inconvenient social pleasantries that get in the way of what he needs. So inspired by his son's insect collection, the man realises things would be perfect if he could have a partner who was dead to the world. Procuring himself a large amount of chloroform in the guise of a professor who needs the chemical for research purposes, he shadows a waitress from a nearby cocktail bar who's caught his eye. Once he's worked out when and where she goes to bed, one quick syringe misted around the room and presto, he's free to be the paragon of virility he dreams of being - and after the whole routine has worked the once, what could possibly ever go wrong?

It's difficult to summarise the plot without being cynical because this is clearly the work of someone who'd already spent almost two decades working in Japan's pink film industry, not least because A Pool Without Water is in large part a product. It's a lengthy procession of sex scenes (though only one of these looks to be unsimulated) connected by a loose narrative thread which in itself is a convenient explanation for a particular fetish. That's not necessarily meant to pass judgement; you'd have to have fairly... particular tastes to choose to get off to this, though perhaps more people dream of arranging unresisting nude women in bizarre tableaux like a Robert Palmer video on ketamine than I previously imagined. Either way, it's plainly obvious that's part of the equation.

At the same time, it slowly dawns on you this is the work of a considerable talent. Despite the hilarious porn soundtrack - squealing synths so ludicrously melodramatic they're begging to be played on a keytar by a man with a luxurious moustache - there's a flow to the direction, the controlling hand of an auteur who's interested in much more than just nudity. It's there in the repeated motif of the man clicking a jittery rhythm on his card punch, or bubbles floating across an empty swimming pool, or the languid, sweeping overhead shots of key locations, or Uchida's slow transformation into a cocky lothario, suave confidence replacing solipsistic daydreaming - and also the way Wakamatsu mocks his hero, like the man's first clumsy attempts at stalking, his wife's reaction to his new look or his ultimate comeuppance.

There's a story, with actual character development, and an attempt at adding moral complexity. He meant well, after a fashion, just as most men mean well even when they screw up - and if only women wouldn't keep on interfering with all of our carefully planned attempts at romance then everything would be fine, right? After all, they say they want a commanding, attentive partner who anticipates their every need, so if that's what they get does anything else matter? Fine, it's a shaky argument (probably because this is a porn film, in many respects) but there's a real, blackly comic intellect behind it, for all the basic premise will probably disturb most people's sensibilities.

A Pool Without Water is a hard sell to anyone bar committed cineastes, given it's such an idiosyncratic creation, so much of which is bent on giving the audience a particular sort of happy ending. But there's more to be got out of it than that. Wakamatsu wants to shock people, to have them take a look at themselves - to ask why they're watching, really, or why they're condemning what they're watching, both with more wit and cinematic flair than other directors use on the same approach. A Pool Without Water is Wakamatsu trying to punk you, if you like - the joke's at your expense, but it's still playful, cleverly put together and genuinely, darkly funny. If that sounds like your kind of thing, consider this one cautiously recommended.

(A Pool Without Water was screened as part of the 17th L'Etrange Film Festival, run from 2nd-11th September 2011 at the Forum Des Images in Paris.)
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