“The Swimmer” by Frank Perry (1968)
A man dives into a pool, its cerulean water glistening against his tanned and toned body under the summer sun. “I’m swimming home!” announces Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) after a few laps to the stunned owners, a chic couple, former acquaintances, quite hungover. He adds cheerfully that he will do so “pool by pool across the county” before darting in direction of the next one, trekking away through the very Wasp and affluent Connecticut neighborhood he used to live in.
Reminiscent of certain Fairfield Porter paintings, the movie is set in a place where time seems to have stood still, between highly inebriated cocktails parties, barbecue gatherings and vapidly glib conversations amongst wealthy upper-class denizens. People Ned thought were his friends all those years, before his sudden reappearance after a long absence, before his alienation from this privileged world. Before he lost it all. His family, his wife and daughters, his job…
Each subsequent aquatic immersion is another signpost of his former life, unveiling more cryptic clues about Ned’s past, forcing him to confront his own distorted recollections as he comes to realize that “nothing turned out the way I thought it would.”
Like a bionic man, at first he looks invincible with his athletic physique, in his tight-fitting navy trunks, the only garment he is seen wearing, almost primal, blinded by his compulsive determination to make it home. With his disarming smile and irrepressible friendly demeanor, he seems immune to the repeated rejections, mockery and condescending attitudes of the folks encountered around the backyard sapphire pools he obstinately keeps plunging in.
The last one is the community public facility, overcrowded with screaming kids, and Ned, now deflated and tired, must face an ultimate humiliation. Sometimes, a nightmare can taste like chlorine.
And then, suddenly, summer is gone. The rain has come, heavy and relentless, leaving Ned cold, exhausted and shivering as he reaches his odyssey’s final destination. A big house, behind a rusty gate and an abandoned tennis court. He bangs in vain at the locked front door. Nobody answers. Nobody ever will. It was his home, a long time ago…
The Swimmer is based on the eponymous short story by John Cheever published in The New Yorker on July 18, 1964, the year the master chronicler of suburban despair and Pulitzer Prize winner made the cover of Time magazine, solidifying his celebrity status as one of America’s best writers. Soon after, director Frank Perry, whose first opus David and Lisa had garnered critical acclaim two years prior, secured an option and started to work on a script with his wife Eleonor. But it would take another year before producer Sam Spiegel decided to buy it for Columbia Pictures and for Lancaster to be cast. Perry confessed to Cheever it was a difficult film to make. He even quit at some point during the filming in the summer of 1966 for the usual “artistic differences,” and Sydney Pollack, uncredited, took over for some sequences.
As Ned, Lancaster gives a bravura and fearless interpretation, imbued with a mix of touching narcissism, melancholy, vulnerability, and almost childlike candor. The star, then 52 and in stunning shape (daring to even show himself naked in one scene) later said it was his favorite film and performance.
Released in 1968, The Swimmer is undoubtedly a strange and intoxicating example of the New Hollywood kind of filmmaking that was exploding then. A dive into metaphysical malaise. A disenchanted allegory about the mirage of the ’60s “American way of life.” A critique of its social success worship. The merciless description of a superficial, sanitized, and clique-ish bourgeois world. Like a dreamlike head trip, this journey through memory and time to the end of nothingness leaves a bittersweet aftertaste, cruelly unveiling the scars, wounds and failures of a life whose compass has been irrevocably broken…