‘I was around and I thought I’d come over and have a swim…’ Popping up randomly on the More4 player in the UK, Frank Perry’s adaptation of the celebrated John Cheever short story got mixed reviews and little audience traction on release in 1968. Perry was replaced during production by the safest pair of hands imaginable ie a young Sydney Pollack, and that personnel change may have caused a loss of confidence of distributors Colombia Pictures. Either way, The Swimmer has been digitally remastered and just looks amazing in 2023; the perennial combination of blu-ray and lashings of natural light make this surreal, ingenious, deliberately baffling film a prospect all over again.
What’s wrong with Ned Merrill (Lancaster)? As a film, The Swimmer never quite explains the answer, but the experience of finding out snippets of information is engrossing. Filmed in Perry’s hometown of Westport, Connecticut, we first see Merrill in the blue trunks he wears throughout the film, at a pool party with some friends. Merrill comes up with an idea that gives him a genuine epiphany; he’ll swim back to his own, via the swimming pools of his friends and neighbours. It’s an idea that we discover relates to his youth, when he and a friend once believed ‘we could swim around the world.’ Ned sees his journey as that of an ‘explorer’, one that could make him ‘transcendent’, but the bright, idealistic opening gives way to darkness as Merrill continues with his picaresque journey and we realise that something happened to send Ned Merrill homewards.
It’s hard to put a time-scale on what’s happening; The Swimmer could be taking place over an afternoon, a day, a week, a month or a lifetime; this is an allegory, but Merrill’s dirty feet suggest actual continuity. Merrill would, in 2023, be called a toxic male; ‘Will you ever grow up?’ is a pertinent question he gets asked, as is ‘When are you going to pay your bills?’; Merrill’s decision to name his quest after his not-pictured MIA wife Lucinda raises a whole set of questions about his social status. ‘You got tossed out of your golden playpen…’ says an ex-lover spitefully, spurning his attentions and firmly treating him as a ‘deadbeat’. ‘Do you think I’ve been in a deep freeze while you’ve been playing house on the hill?’ she says.
Perry’s film is a haunting dissection of fake male indestructability; Lancaster, never clothed, looks like an alien super-being, but he has feet of clay. He crashes a swinging party, tangles with nudists, even wrangles an invite to another party only for the hosts to score his name off the list with a petulant swipe of a pen. The alienating incidents pile up, the experience only grows more sour, it’s getting colder and the light is fading. Merrill offers some questionable advice to a young boy that resonates in the fake-it-till-you-make it internet era ‘If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true to you.’ The boy therefore feels safe playing on a springboard because ‘there’s no water in the pool’ and Merrill has to run back to save the kid from a potential injury. Some of The Swimmer’s social commentary is a little dated now perhaps, but the acerbic portrayal of the toxic American male in decline is captured in a way that should really sing for modern viewers.