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The Swimmer

The Swimmer posterSynopsis

Made in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster as the swimmer.  He proposes to get back home by swimming through each of the swimming pools on the way there.  He starts off optimistically surrounded by successful and seemingly friendly people  As he progresses the high summer gets autumnal.  The swimming pool hosts start from the friendly (one is hostile early in the film) to the snobby, then hostile and contemptuous.  He ends up back at his own house and everything is very different.

Criticism

One of the stars of this film is the swimming pool, the symbol of American affluence and self confidence.  In The Graduate it started as a symbol of Ben’s success, and ends up like bath water lapping his self pity.  In The Swimmer the pools are expensively cleaned, at the end he swims through eye burning chlorine.

Based on a story by John Cheever, it’s a tautly acted and written parable which packs a few morals depending on your interpretation.  Lancaster starts out as an enviable example of the American Dream.  He appears rich and successful and has two daughters and a wife.  His friends are as successful as he is and all is affluent and joyful. The first upset comes at the third pool where he is dismissed by a bitter tirade railing against Lancaster’s snubbing of a dying acquaintance.  We overhear elderly nativists  gossip about Lancaster’s problems and we know there’s something wrong.  Then he meets a young blonde admirer who refuses to satisfy his vanity by turning her childhood crush into a relationship and she is no longer the wholesome innocent she appears to be.  He then comes across a garden party where he is snubbed and learns that his wife sold a treasured possession behind his back.  Then he gets to a former lover who is very bitter with his status-seeking regard and she rebuffs him and tells him he is an inadequate.  Then he gets into a public swimming pool crowded with people.  There he is told about his family’s attitude towards him and he ends up in rain and squalor.

At first among the rich and successful, Lancaster is genuinely positive and thinks the best of people in a Panglossian way, as if everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  For me, this is a jarring note in the story, in spite of Lancaster’s smugness he is also keen to spread happiness. Whatever his misdemeanours, you feel that he is a not an entirely unsympathetic person (unless you read this as a parable about US imperialism).  Even when his bitter ex-lover rejects him, she is ready to help him back to his house.  Lancaster’s character is brittle and proud and his progress through the pools is objectively monitored by seasonal deterioration.  Are the characters at the end too harsh with him?  It depends on the interpretation you give it.  Lancaster’s acting throughout is gripping.  You could read this film as a parable about growing up or about America’s supposed loss of innocence after the Kennedy assassination and about Vietnam.  This film also has the feeling of a nice dream journey into a nightmare.  As he walks away from the garden party the guests line up to see him off.  In the countryside we see the reliable old standby of cinematic dream symbolism: the horse galloping free.

This is a sixties film so it features that other stereotype of that decade: the embittered alcoholic wife/mistress.  At the start the characters talk like Stepford alpha men and women.  People say what’s required of them to sustain the facile optimism of money and high status.  At the end people are cynical and bitter but in a very literal minded way.  The story should evince hope even in the squalid circumstances of comparative poverty but it doesn’t do this.  I think it would be a better film if the moral possibilities in the story had been pursued.  Among the truth telling cynics, Lancaster has the opportunity to get through guilt and remorse to achieve some kind of expiation but it doesn’t happen.  We see a sinister squalor at the end but we don’t know the extent of his culpability.  Those victims of his arrogance achieve vengeance, and like them the film gloats over this person stripped of allusions shown to be living in lies.  The film’s mercilessly non redemptive end is very bleak.  A dark but absorbing film.

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