burt lancaster emerges from the woods with nought but swimming shorts covering his sculpted physique, sauntering into an upscale suburb like a deity surveying a realm of his own making. a platonic ideal of Man, his natural habitat is not the surrounding wilderness but these rolling hills and valleys dotted with one lavish country mansion after another, “like a dream city from the bow of a ship”. each has its own pristine, sun-dappled pool—99.99.99% filtered, boasts one member of the 0.00.01%—and the first time he breaks the surface hamlisch’s score surges into eerie hysteria, as though like narcissus he is chasing an illusory, doomed ideal. the residents know him and seem to embrace him, and he casually reminisces and womanises like the alpha lethario he is, but an absurd purpose for his sudden appearance soon becomes clear: he's resolved to swim his way home from one pool to the next like some glorious odyssean “explorer”, an idea born of madness and hubris but proposed in utter seriousness. an extreme close-up of his ocean blue eyes dissolves into an enigmatic, faintly disconcerting flashback, as if to remind us that water is not only a womb of comfort and creation nor a symbol of wealth and freedom, but also the domain of distorted reflections, lost time, poisoned temptation, and death.
next come a series of darkening encounters: the former babysitter who would once sniff the swimmer’s belongings in the throes of a childish crush (“you were a god to me”); a late friend’s bitter mother; a nudist, allegedly communist couple and their immigrant driver; a lonely weakling boy; the man who stole his, uh, hot dog wagon; a jilted former lover; a rabble of small business owners. perry showily toys with blurred focus, slow-motion and kaleidoscopic refractions of the sun’s rays, and he has fun playing with unreliable perspectives, as bodies suddenly jolt into shot from behind the camera or rise into view from the deep. clunky edits and a marked lack of shot-reverse shot cuts suggest a growing disconnect between the swimmer and those around him, although this can be partially attributed to poorly-matched reshoots by an uncredited sydney pollack, who took over filming after lancaster and perry fell out. there’s also some symbolism that would be painful if it wasn’t so silly, as the swimmer first races a horse to reaffirm his vitality (or is it death he’s attempting to outrun?), then leaps fences himself in ludicrous slow motion to impress the babysitter, this eve to his adam, in the film’s most erotic sequence. in any case, time seems to be accelerating like a proto-kaufman gimmick, while the milieu is downscaling rapidly, and each reunion chips away at the swimmer’s ideas of himself until someone pathetic, tragic and finally horrifying emerges (the ending in its ghoulish knocks and howls actually brought bloodborne to mind). it's a cycle doomed to repeat itself, this swimmer dreaming himself a king of the ocean and waking to find the water's all gone, and the ladder too.
the allegory is fluid enough, and just backgrounded enough, to work on multiple levels. it’s a specifically sixties vision of the death of a class and the bursting of its luxurious bubble, as well as an indictment of the rose-tinted colonialist nostalgia inherent to western identity. it may be a metaphor for alcoholism, as has been suggested of cheever’s source material (cheever himself cameos as a drunk sleeping in, yes, a pool), with the swimmer half-heartedly refusing and then dispatching most of the drinks sent his way. it may be about the passage of innocence into experience; in one of the best sequences, the swimmer teaches what may as well be his inner child to swim in an empty pool and then rescues him from what he wrongly perceives as a potential suicide. most fundamentally, it’s about how far Man will go to escape his own mortality through conquests over land, water, women, other tribes, and even truth itself, all of which retains its resonance despite this movie being so clearly the product of its decade (its legacy lives on in mad men, a show it directly inspired). the brilliance of lancaster’s performance is that he sells both the masculine self-aggrandisement and the quivering wreck lurking beneath, sometimes simultaneously. the way the former quietly unravels into the latter adds a mocking lilt to the provocative tagline: “will you talk about The Swimmer without talking about yourself?” there can’t be many major studio films to address such inconvenient truths, to turn inward in a gradual, creeping way that coaxes the audience into doing the same.
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