Swimming Home

Swimming Home (2024)

Swimming Home had its North American première at Tribeca, 10 Jun 2024

At the beginning of writer/director Justin Anderson’s feature debut Swimming Home, war journalist Isabel (Mackenzie Davis) and her intense, taciturn husband Josef (executive producer Christopher Abbott) have just picked up their former university professor Laura (Nadine Labaki) from the airport, and are on their way to a rented holiday villa on the Greek coastline, chauffeured by its handyman Vito (Anastasios Alexandropoulos). “The forest is full of bears,” warns Josef, breaking his silence – and there are snakes in the grass too, and poisonous plants left by monks. Yet despite these dangers, nothing will unsettle this middle-class family more that what awaits them at the villa. “There’s a woman in the pool,” Josef and Isabel’s 15-year-old daughter Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills) tells them as they arrive – and there is, floating on her back, completely naked and asleep.

This is Kitti (Ariane Labed, also an executive producer), a free-spirited friend of Vito and botanist who claims to be from “here, sometimes”. The others expressly pick up on the vagueness of that expression, and on the even greater vagueness of her later claim: “My mother was a river, so we were always on the move.” Still, despite Kitti’s youth and open comfort in her own nudity, and Josef’s long history of extra-marital dalliances, Isabel invites Kitti to stay. It is a strange set-up, but then the dynamics in this household were already dysfunctional. Isabel is rarely home from her work, likes her solitude and has become estranged from her own daughter; Josef is a celebrated poet who has stopped writing, has a morose, melancholic bent and never talks about his Serbian childhood (or, increasingly, about anything); and Nina is lost in adolescence and abandonment. They all, in their different ways, become fascinated by this mysterious young woman in their midst, even if Josef, uncharacteristically resistant to Kitti’s seductions, starts to regard her presence as threatening and toxic. 

Swimming Home

Anderson has ostensibly adapted Swimming Home from Deborah Levy’s 2011 novel of the same name, but he has changed the location from Nice to somewhere in Greece – an alteration that brings all manner of mythic associations – and tweaked Kitti’s character (no longer come as a fangirl of Joe’s poetry) and even, ever so minimally, her name (she is Kitty in the novel). In fact the influences are as much cinematic as literary.  Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) have certainly left their trace, as has Anderson’s own Teorema-riffing short Jumper (2014) – except that here the interloping stranger whose arrival transforms a bourgeois family has been sex-switched from male to female. Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969) has also made its mark on the film’s textures, while Josef’s fixation on ursine invaders alludes to Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear (2020), another writer’s block film in which Abbott had featured. A scene in which ants swarm the centre of Josef’s open hand points to a similar image from Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s seminal surrealist short Un Chien Andalou (1929).

Surrealism is as good a prism as any through which to view Swimming Home. The club which Isabel attends alone every night is a Lynchian zone where the boundaries between writhing dance performers and seated audience break down. The rocky beach where Kitti takes Nina is full of men and women displaying their bodies in weird gestures. The paintings at the villa depict women with grotesquely melting faces. Isabel leads a horse rented from Pony Land into a restaurant for no good reason. And Josef has nightmarish visions of Kitti slithering headfirst into a hole in the ground. Enigma compounds upon enigma, but the film’s greatest mysteries turn out to be literal rites of passage: Nina’s towards adulthood (marked by incipient sexuality and menarche), and Josef’s towards the death that deep down he craves. ”You have to move forward,” Isabel tells Josef, “you can’t go back – there’s nothing there.” Yet Josef cannot move on from a traumatic past which he represses and denies and tries to forget – and to which he will eventually return of his own free will, swimming home like a fish. 

Shot by DP Simos Sarketzis with a formal rigour, and scored by Coti K. with choro-electronic sounds that disrupt the naturalism and enhance the sense of disorientation, Swimming Home comes with a surface shimmer and a deep-end ambiguity. In a way Kitti is two characters: the literal person who comes to stay at the villa for a few days; and the metaphor that Josef, with his poetic sensibility, recognises in her. Nearly everything that Kitti says comes with a double meaning – a careful aspect of the script that it is all too easy to miss on first viewing, when it is still unclear where everything is heading. The pool at the film’s centre, where Kitti was first seen, turns out to be a primordial one, and from it emerges a timeless drama – as ancient as an Oedipal tragedy and as modern as contemporary dance or free verse – where everyone’s fate is ultimately identical, and where the same cycle, like a reverberating ripple, continues, perhaps into eternity. For at this sweaty, sultry shoreline, there is always danger, eros laps up against thanatos in endless waves, and no one can resist taking a dip into the infinite.

strap: Justin Anderson’s feature debut finds broader metaphor and myth in a lost family’s dysfunction on the Greek coastline

© Anton Bitel