There’s a luxuriantly sensuous quality to the prose of British novelist Deborah Levy — a tactile grasp of land, weather and flesh — that feels intensely cinematic while reading it, as well as an elliptical, concentrated interior psychology that feels liable to trip up any potential adapters. Those rewards and risks hold true in “Swimming Home,” a seductive but opaque adaptation of Levy’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel of the same name, in which the author’s knack for epigrammatic character portraiture and hothouse emotional conflict yields more superficially enigmatic results on screen. In his feature directing debut, British video artist Justin Anderson carries over a chicly serrated, off-kilter audiovisual sense from his commercials and short-form work; his scripting is less assured, as is his command of a fine but under-tested ensemble led by Christopher Abbott, Mackenzie Davis and Ariane Labed.
Recently premiered in competition at the Rotterdam Film Festival, “Swimming Home” may prove too elusive and short on feeling to draw the arthouse distributors that might otherwise be lured by its name actors and familiarly sexy premise: A free-spirited stranger aggravates tensions between a drifting couple over the course of a long, hot Mediterranean vacation. Certain adventurous streamers may take interest, In terms of release strategy, it could act as a chaser to a higher-profile but similarly humid Levy adaptation, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s “Hot Milk,” to be unveiled later this year.
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Anderson signals his intent to discombobulate the viewer early and obviously, with opening credits over gauzy, upended shots of a winding rural road, over an arresting score — by Greek electronic artist Coti K. — pitched halfway between choral hum and swarming insect attack. The road, on an unidentified island in what appears to be Greece, leads to a modern, high-end beach villa being rented for the summer by Josef (Abbott), a renowned poet in the throes of a creative drought, and his wife Isabel (Davis), an intrepid war reporter who admits to feeling less at home with her family than she does in the midst of a combat zone. Their sullen 15-year-old daughter Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills) is equally detached from both her parents. An expensive family vacation of mutual avoidance appears to await, brightened only by the neon-hued short shorts of taciturn villa handyman Vito (Anastasios Alexandropoulos).
When Josef and Isabel pick up family friend Laura (Nadine Labaki, in an oddly curtailed part) from the airport, however, they return to find a stranger stark naked in the pool. Kitti (Labed) claims to be a friend of Vito’s, but she’s rather more interested in the family, immediately ingratiating herself with the otherwise closed-off Nina, and gradually revealing more knowledge of Josef and his past than she initially lets on. Apparently a botanist, she collects wilted plant samples, admires root systems for their brainless problem-solving, and microdoses on local poisonous foliage in order to make her own body an instrument of toxic destruction. Perhaps.
In Levy’s novel, the nude interloper is an outright, obsessive fan of Josef’s poetry. Here, her motives are more abstruse, to slightly dimmed dramatic effect. Josef, a fiftysomething Polish Holocaust survivor in the 1990s-set novel, is here considerably younger, his trauma instead rooted in unspoken memories of the Bosnian War he fled as a child with his parents. Anderson’s script doesn’t examine this revised historical context much beyond the constant faraway gaze that characterizes Abbott’s performance. If it colors his view of his wife’s profession at all, or hers of him, we’re left to intuit that in their brittle silences.
At any rate, Isabel has long made her peace with Josef’s serial infidelity, finding her own release in nightly excursions to an altogether mystifying nightclub where dancers writhe in erotic torment, where she observes but does not interact. It is a running joke or frustration of “Swimming Home” that this hot little island is heaving with sexual promise that goes untapped by the principals: “Just because the window’s open, doesn’t mean you have to climb through,” says Laura, a character tasked with little more than occasionally putting a description to tacit character dynamics.
Meanwhile, Vito is forever relandscaping the villa’s gardens with large and farcically phallic auger drill, while the beaches and surrounding rocks are dotted with indolently nude men who can’t quite be bothered with come-hither advances. “Take me with you,” Isabel calls out to one such granite-buttocked adonis. “I’m not going anywhere,” he replies indifferently. Thus is the film’s strange, languid erotic holding pattern set. Despite such absurdist flourishes, the dry, prickly humor of Levy’s writing isn’t much in evidence. Anderson takes proceedings seriously, but even as matters tilt toward tragedy — the losses of the past reflected in the present — the film doesn’t accrue much power.
Its chief pleasures, then, lie in sensory details: the sun-fuzzed grain, citrussy color stories and woozily flooded lighting of Simos Sarketzis’ cinematography, often slicing the actors’ bodies into alien close-ups; the consistently uncanny sonic intrusions of the score, merging organic and synthetic sounds into fidgety aural chaos; or the crisp lines and busy prints of Oliver Garcia’s costumes, which subtly outline the class dynamics at play, while permitting all involved to be elegant in their misery.
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