Jumper, Justin Anderson’s first short, opened on a naked man bathing in a pool. Conceived in 2014 for the tenth anniversary of British fashion designer Jonathan Saunders, the film was a riff on Pasolini’s Teorema; it followed a lunar stranger who shows up uninvited at a luscious Spanish villa and upends the frigid lives of its tenants. Ten years later, the same idea and shot survive more or less intact in Anderson’s feature debut, Swimming Home, based on a 2011 Man Booker-shortlisted novel by Deborah Levy. Except this time the setting is a summer home on an unidentified Greek island, the nude intruder a young woman, and her target is not a whole family but its taciturn, haunted patriarch.
His name his Josef (Christopher Abbott); hers is Kitti (Ariane Labed). He’s a poet and she’s a botanist––but this is his story, not hers, and for all the unnerving aura Labed can radiate from her id-propelled character, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that her Kitti exists solely as a narrative device. This isn’t entirely Anderson’s fault. Levy’s book also introduced Kitti as a sort of manic pixie dream girl, but seemed to work against that construct by gifting her a modicum of agency and purpose. In Swimming Home, Anderson isn’t as interested in challenging the trope because Kitti isn’t a flesh-and-bone character so much as a metaphor, and this, of all the choices that draw life and oomph from the film, is the most damning.
While Jumper may have amounted to a mere showcase for Saunders’s collections (there are times when it’s quite frankly difficult to guess if what you’re watching is a short or a perfume commercial), it also signaled an incipient directorial sensibility. Anderson favored compositions that sliced characters into alien-like figures, as well as heavy-handed images and symbols. That visual grammar ripples on to Swimming Home. Working with a woozy palette, Simos Sarketzis’s cinematography is as in tune with the sun-dappled locale as it is with the growingly sinister energies Kitti injects into it. Caught floating in the pool, her scalloped body a mirage out of a David Hockney painting, not only is the trespasser not thrown out––she’s invited to stay for as long as she wants, not by Josef but his wife Isabel (Mackenzie Davis), in an attempt, one presumes, to put her philandering husband to the test. As Kitti’s sojourn grows longer, Sarketzis’s shots turn more and more disquieting, trafficking in close-ups that transform bodies (Labed’s especially) into wellsprings of desire. Glistening, naked torsos; hungry lips; bruised kneecaps; with all its ostensibly lusty visuals, that Swimming Home should remain so emotionally flaccid is perhaps its most remarkable feature.
Tried-and-true as it may be, the premise––an attractive stranger charms their way into a bourgeois family and rekindles everyone’s sexual urges––hints at a tension (and horniness) the film never truly musters. That’s because Anderson’s approach is oddly prudish. His characters never get to act on the desires that haunt them––in spite of all the nudity, the proceedings remain sex-free, all the more baffling considering Davy’s source text was hardly as parsimonious on the subject. But the elision speaks volumes about the film’s overall trajectory. Swimming Home kicks off as a simmering psycho-sexual thriller in the vein of Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine––or its 2015 remake by Luca Guadagnino, A Bigger Splash––only to trade that initial disquiet for something far more turgid. Even the most erotically charged moments feel astonishingly mute, undercut as they are by a self-seriousness that siphons much of the lust from the drama.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Kitti’s character arc. Introduced as an agent of chaos seemingly determined to flirt with and bed Josef’s whole clan, including his 15-year-old daughter Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills), the young woman’s interest in poisonous plants suggests a pivot to a femme fatale role not unlike Phantom Thread’s Alma. If only. Having reduced her to a groupie obsessed with Josef’s verses, Anderson finally tips his hand, transforming her into something desolately emptier still: a stand-in for his PTSD-riddled conscience.
In Davy’s book, the poet was a Holocaust survivor; in Swimming Home, he’s a Bosnian émigré who lost his family in the Yugoslav Wars. Nothing wrong with the shift in context, but in order for that to work––in order, that is, for Josef’s despair and unresolved traumas to feel credible––the man needs to be granted a degree of characterization the film never affords him. Or anyone else, for that matter. Intriguing as it may sometimes be to look at and listen to (the score, by Greek electronic artist Coti K., combines natural sounds to an entrancing effect), Swimming Home feels like a gorgeous backdrop waiting to be populated by real people. Those you see aren’t characters but mannequins; their backstories don’t come across as lived-in but tacked-on. Their inauthenticity is of a piece with the film’s.
Time and again, Anderson sneaks in some oneiric scenes and flourishes: Davis’s Isabel is a regular patron at a bar-theatre where dancers prowl about like Lycra-clad arachnids; naked men hold lit flares in broad daylight; others gyrate in silent dances around rocks and trees. Yet what the film deals with isn’t surrealism but a kind of anti-realism. Swimming Home isn’t interested in revealing anything about its leads beyond what is strictly required from the demands of plot; whatever you may come to know about them, it is merely information that fits the outcome. In diminishing his protagonists’ inner worlds, Anderson makes their sorrows perfunctory, their psychologies hollow. What you’re left with is a film that’s stylized to the point of abstraction––a tale of grief and desire that fails to evoke either.
Swimming Home premiered at the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam.