It’s a European filmmaking style whereby fragmentation of relationships would be explored besides a swimming pool, whereby an extraneous presence would disrupt the relationship of a seemingly normal, loving couple, as that presence would mark a catalyst of eroticism, mind games, and genuine exploration of the nuances of relationship dynamics, be it in “La Piscine” or “Teorama.”.

Filmmaker Justin Anderson’s debut feature, “Swimming Home,” adapting the critically acclaimed novella of the same name, already opens with a discombobulating visual, the camera inverted, showing a car ambling through the Greek countryside. Married couple Josef Jacobs (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Isabel (Mackenzie Davis) have just picked up their academic friend Laura (Nadine Labacki) from the airport. Now, under the steady hands of their driver Tito, they are driving to the villa Jacobs had rented,  where their daughter Nina is already waiting for them. That changes when the Jacobs enter the villa to find a young woman floating on the pool with her eyes closed, perfectly still. As Nina watches, her mother calmly jumps in the pool, fully clothed, and pushes the woman’s foot down, jerking her awake.

The woman, revealed to be Tito’s friend, Kitty, had been invited by Tito because she was looking for a place to stay close to the beach. As if daring to invite trouble, Isabel invites her to stay with the Jacobs family almost deadeningly. The resultant dominoes falling would cause irrefutable fractures within the Jacobs’ relationship. But that would suggest the initial relationship hadn’t been fraught with troubles, and as it turns out, that isn’t the case.

Isabel, a war photographer, is overwhelmed by emotional apathy, and the only moment she feels alive is when she is back in the war zone. Josef’s writer’s block has given rise to depression, and his relationship with Kitty further complicates matters, as Kitty has more foreknowledge of Josef’s past and his connection to the Balkan war than had been previously revealed. Nina, on the other hand, slowly begins to get closer to Kitty and start discovering her sexuality.

As catalysts go, Kitty’s character as the alluring temptress works conceptually. It helps that Labaed is fascinating, guarded, and seductive in her portrayal, such that the viewers feel drawn towards her, just as characters like Nina and Josef tend to fall into the Venus fly trap of seduction. The narrative’s set-up is fascinating, though it is marred by Anderson’s visuals, especially his off-kilter shot composition.

Swimming Home (2024)
A still from “Swimming Home” (2024)

His background in music videos and his fascination with avant-garde filmmaking ensures that the narrative becomes as abstruse as possible through narrative (Isabel choosing to attend an erotic nightclub where she watches leather-wearing, scantily clad people gyrate in peculiar crab-dancing motions) or through visual obfuscation (Josef hallucinating ants eating through his hand and him being stuck inside a forest). But the movie and Anderson itself start delving too deep into visual poetry, either through splicing in dance sequences or through Anderson’s off-kilter shot compositions.

It’s almost anti-erotic in how he depicts exposed skin, faces not in the center of the frame, and chemistry depicted only through askew glances. It doesn’t help that Abbott’s depiction of a man completely controlled by his trauma comes off as depressive episodes rather than hallucinogenic outbursts. It is a directorial decision, as is the decision to not develop Laura’s character in the second act but rather stick her in a holding pattern, content to use her as an audience surrogate to ensure commentary on the dysfunctional relationship existing between the Jacobs.

The deliberate obfuscation stemming from arthouse eroticization disengages from the execution rather than intriguing you into solving through the fragmented narrative. When the final twist in the tale is revealed, it is altogether a disturbing experience. You are impressed by the images of Simos Sarketzis and the overall grain in the visual palette, or somewhat by the dance choreography. When the movie becomes surrealistic, it is fascinating. When the film tries to be portentous and illustrate the thematic complexity that the novel, presumably, and thus the screenplay by Anderson, might be trying to evoke, it falls flat.

There is no balancing act between the faux intellectualism stemming from the overuse of the avant-garde and the exploration of the human condition that could be depicted through dialogues and performances. It’s all, unfortunately, a muddle.  It’s akin to walking through a dreamy haze with no promise of clearance. The ending is clearly meant to be tragic, a symbol of trauma enveloping the conscience, but because of the forceful visual gymnastics, the denouement falls with a thud.

Swimming Home premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival 2024.

Swimming Home (2024) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Cast of Swimming Home (2024) Movie: Christopher Abbott, Mackenzie Davis, Ariane Labed
Swimming Home (2024) Movie Genre: Drama | Runtime: 1h 39m

Similar Posts