Swimming Home (2024)


Swimming Home Review

Justin Anderson, a first-time director of a feature film, has adapted this award-winning novel from 2011 by Deborah Levy, to give it an impressive but uneven finish for its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The prose of British novelist Deborah Levy is richly sensuous she has a physical hold on land and weather, on flesh, that feels very filmic in the reading as well as an elliptical, concentrated interior psychology that seems likely to wrongfoot any adapter. Both those gifts and problems are present in Swimming Home itself; it is a sexy film but also an opaque one which only fleetingly communicates what’s going on. The problem is not so much that the film loses its grip on Levy’s epigrammatic character portraiture or her hothouse emotional conflict; it just never quite finds them.

In his first digital feature Justin Anderson (who has made commercials and short-form work) brings over his slickly serrated off-kilter audiovisual sensibility; less successfully he brings along a script and a finely-acted but underpowered ensemble led by Christopher Abbott (It Comes At Night), Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049) and Ariane Labed (Attenberg).

Screening in competition at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Swimming Home may be too elusive and airless even for arthouse distributors tempted by name actors doing unfamiliar things with their clothes off: Laura Mulvey once wrote about arthouse cinema giving us women without men which gives you nil points here. But maybe adventurous streamers might take to it. Indeed if Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Hot Milk gets picked up later this year for release then perhaps that could act as a warmer chaser.

Anderson begins discombobulating us pretty early on with opening credits over gauzy shots of a winding rural road turned upside-down as cars drive along it; with Coti K.’s arresting score pitched halfway between a choral hum and a swarm-of-insects attack but he really gets going when Josef (Abbott), a renowned poet in the middle of a creative block, and his wife Isabel (Davis), an intrepid war reporter who has always felt more at home on the front line than with her family, pick up Laura (Nadine Labaki) from the airport. Returning to the villa, they find Kitti (Labed) naked in the pool. She claims to be Vito’s friend, but she is much more interested in them.

In Levy’s novel, the bare trespasser is a complete, fanatical supporter of Josef’s poetry. Here, her reasons are deeper but less dramatic. In Anderson’s script, a fifty-something Polish Holocaust survivor in the 1990s-set novel becomes much younger a person whose trauma stems from unspoken memories of the Bosnian War he fled as a child with his parents. His wife’s profession and how it colors his view of it or hers of him is not something Anderson’s script much cares to examine beyond the constant faraway gaze that characterizes Abbott’s performance. We’re left to intuit that in their brittle silences.

In any event, Isabel has long since made her peace with Josef’s serial infidelity and found her own release at an altogether baffling nightclub where dancers writhe in erotic torment before her eyes but not necessarily for them. This little island is throbbing with sexual promise for everyone in “Swimming Home” except its central couple; this isn’t so much a running joke as it is a frustration: “Just because the window’s open,” says Laura, who exists mostly to occasionally put into words what we otherwise might not already know about the tacit dynamics between characters, “doesn’t mean you have to climb through.”

Vito spends all day every day using an enormous auger drill that looks like an oversized penis to keep relandscaping the villa’s gardens; there are men sitting around on the rocks and beaches below who are too indolently nude (and also possibly high) to even bother with come-hither advances. Isabel points up at one such granite-buttocked Adonis and hollers down “Take me with you!” He replies “I’m not going anywhere.” So sets the film’s strange, languid erotic holding pattern. The dryness and prickliness often quite funny in its way of Levy’s writing doesn’t survive the transition to Anderson’s more earnest rendering of it. The movie is serious about itself; as matters tilt toward the tragic the losses of the past reflected in the present it still doesn’t gather much power.

Its pleasures are mostly sensual the sun-fuzzed grain and citrussy color stories and woozily flooded lighting of Simos Sarketzis’ cinematography, which often slices its actors’ bodies into alien close-ups; the consistently uncanny sonic intrusions of Mica Levi’s score, which merge organic and synthetic sounds until they become fidgety aural chaos; or Oliver Garcia’s crisp lines and busy prints of costumes, which subtly outline for us class dynamics but mostly just allow everyone involved to be elegant in their misery.

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