Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Chris Cassingham Featured Film

Swimming Home — Justin Anderson [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 12, 2024

Steady hums and inverted camerawork in the early moments of Justin Anderson’s psychological drama Swimming Home are strategies of disorientation, signaling its intent to unmoor the audience from reality just as husband and wife, Joseph and Isabel (played respectively by Christopher Abbott and Mackenzie Davis), are unmoored. While often separated, she a globe-trotting war reporter and he an elusive, melancholic, house-bound poet, their convergence on a Grecian villa during their summer holiday also coincides with an emotional convergence, and the disjointed compositions inside and outside the car — with faces obscured, meticulously cropped out of sight — suggests their latest reunion won’t be an easy one.

Joseph is immediately defined by a curious placidity, verging on indifference. A sense of detachment from his immediate reality emanates from Abbott’s closed-off face with an unnerving ease. It would be a remarkably effective character choice on Abbott’s part if it weren’t for the fact that his demeanor never wavers throughout the film. Nevertheless, it’s clear Joseph is going through something — something deeply personal, internal, unspeakable. His poetry has all but dried up, and he doesn’t so much as indicate his troubles to Isabel, despite her pleas. She has her own troubles, too; namely, a sense of dissatisfaction with her home life each time she returns from some far-flung corner of the Earth. These domestic troubles take some coaxing out of Anderson’s oblique, stuttering script, which is defined as much by its gaps in narrative logic as it is by its outright thematic bluntness.

Doing most of the coaxing — other than a friend and former professor (Nadine Labaki) accompanying them on holiday and the couple’s neglected teenage daughter, Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills), already at the villa — is Kitty (Ariane Labed), a mysterious woman the family discovers floating naked in their swimming pool. Her bleached, wavy bob is a mirror of the villa’s washed-out, pastel-hued facades which practically vibrate with heat in the blinding sunlight. Kitty brings her own kind of heat to Joseph and Isabel’s icy relationship. The casual ease with which she struts around perfect strangers, totally naked, is one thing, but it’s the provocation that Isabel throws out by allowing her to stay in their guest house which suggests a deeper power, one that might force Joseph to at last lay out his troubles.

It’s difficult to identify Swimming Home’s narrative propulsion, because much of it unfolds in languid vignettes, whether a walk in the woods, a trip to a gay cruising spot, or an outing to the nearby Ponyland whose ubiquitous advertising and stalking presence in the film turns out to be disappointingly ornamental. The film prefers, instead, to traffic in weird vibes. It takes its cues from the Greek Weird Wave, a micro-movement of early-2000s Greek cinema popularized by Yorgos Lanthimos (he is thanked in the credits and moves through the film like a specter thanks to Labed, his wife and frequent collaborator), as well as the the pool-centric, quasi-intellectual, Euro-bourgeois milieus of Luca Guadagnino, François Ozon, and Jacques Deray.

Kitty is perhaps the strongest presence in the film, and as a result is often the fulcrum on which the rest of the characters’ dynamics and actions balance. We’re told she’s a friend of the villa’s groundskeeper, but nothing more. “My mother was a river, we were always on the move,” she remarks early on when questioned about her origins. It’s only through sheer force of weirdness that she makes her mark on the film, admittedly not difficult when Davis and Abbott spend the film’s runtime giving masterclasses in emotional neutrality that feel less a result of careful restraint than directorial timidity. Kitty’s odd behavior manifests in a number of puzzling ways designed to elicit as much confusion as possible: she deliberately eats poisonous plants, so that if she’s eaten by a bear it will die too; she pricks her finger and wipes the blood on the wall of Joseph and Isabel’s bedroom, a curious ploy meant to be read as a marking of territory; and at one point she speaks to Joseph in his native Bosnian, saying that she’s there to take him home and his parents are looking for him, before taking a long, belabored piss on his foot. We also see her rehearsing a strange, contortionist dance in her room, one that mirrors the avant-garde dancing that Isabel goes to see by herself each night instead of eating dinner with her family.

All of this weirdness adds up to very little, save for an elaborately choreographed finale, in which Kitty — in precisely framed and timed cross-cuts between Joseph and Isabel’s bedroom and the modern-industrial performance space we’ve seen Isabel visit — crab-walks up Joseph and Isabel’s bed as well as up to a pyramid of faces, their gaping maws presumably meant to reflect our own response to this out-of-body display. This final coming-together between Kitty and Joseph is meant to signify something, and indeed the film does eventually reveal Joseph’s troubles: as a child he escaped the war in Bosnia, but his parents were killed, and the mixture of guilt, fear, and sick longing to have died there as well has wrenched him from reality. But this revelation comes far too late: too late to make up for 90 minutes of wading through the overstretched histories of underwritten characters, and too late even for Joseph himself.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 1.