On a beautiful, hot and sunny day we see a man diving into a swimming pool. He’s handsome, masculine, well built, and he’s back to the district he used to live in once. He grabs a drink and starts a rather insignificant conversation with an old-time friend. He’s an explorer, an adventurer, and it seems as though he’s in desperate need of some new experiences. He discovers that there’s a long line of pools in this suburban Connecticut neighborhood and suddenly decides to ‘swim home’.
That’s how his fascinating journey begins. And I might assure you that it’s neither an easy nor a pleasurable one. As the man moves from one pool to another we gradually begin to piece all the missing puzzles together. Through the interactions with many local people his life story begins to form. Some those people adore him, others loathe him, some are friends, and others are long-time enemies. The swimmer takes a dip, says a few words, and then he’s nowhere to be found. He’s like the ghost of a person who previously inhabited his body. Though the conversations that he has seem realistic, they’re actually very stiff, incomprehensible, and always unfinished. Yet they tell us more than we need to know about this shady persona. Slowly, we learn about the excruciating story of defeat and humiliation. Behind the swimmer’s faked smile hides a grim and dark secret, connected to a troubled past and failed realization of dreams.
The film ingeniously moves from day to night and from youth to age, flowing through like a whole lifetime rather than a day. The Swimmer is a most-stylized and artistic film. The meaning of the story is unclear until the very last, most decisive moments. It’s not before the protagonist’s final, most gut-wrenching encounters, when we discover the allegory hidden in the picture’s seemingly vague substance. Behind the face of a pretty upper class suburbanite hides a tragic hero. His heartbreaking life story exemplifies the failure of the so-called American Dream. Surrounded by many pretentious, emotionless characters the swimmer tries to find solace and redemption, but won’t be able to. He’s not one of them anymore, given his wretched state. While his former neighbors bathe in the sun and enjoy alcohol-filled parties, the swimmer roams around reminding them of a failed attempt at a glorious life. They seem appalled, frightened even, they are disguised by his sudden appearance. Once he found love in their arms, now all he gets is angry looks and accusations.
Based on an imaginative short story by John Cheever, The Swimmer comes as a mannerist, surrealistic, unsettling drama that is as steep as it is sharp. It’s Burt Lancaster’s most memorable performance. Wondering around the suburbia dressed only in swimming trunks, he portrays not only a cheerless and beaten man, but also an acute and penetrating representation of a destroyed life, where hopes and dreams are worth next to nothing.