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Justin Anderson Swimming Home Review


Swimming Home | 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam Review

Swimming Home | 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam Review

Marriage Story: Justin Anderson Serves Up An Enigmatic Challenge Is His Feature Debut

A marriage in crisis cooks under the summer sun in filmmaker Justin Anderson’s enervating feature debut Swimming Home. Stripping away the narrative thrust and many of the characters in his adaptation of Deborah Levy’s excellent acclaimed novella, the director attempts to grapple more directly with the enigmas at its haunted core. But saddled with deliberately alienating and obfuscating symbolism, the resulting effort is a tedious, overly earnest po-faced slow burn.

Vacationing in a luxe villa in the Greek countryside, Joseph (Christopher Abbott), his wife Isabel (Mackenzie Davis), and their teenage daughter Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills) have barely had time to welcome the arrival of family friend Laura (Nadine Labaki) when the mysterious Kitti (Ariane Labed) is found pleasantly floating naked in their swimming pool. She claims to be a friend of the property’s caretaker Vito (Anastasios Alexadropoulos), who was to arrange a property for her stay, but when Isabel offers her the pool house, Kitti readily accepts.

All impulse and no inhibitions (she frequently struts around nude), Kitti quickly befriends Nina, and turns Joseph into a pet project, showering him with a curiosity that often feels, and sometimes is, violating. The morose and famed poet keeps his guard up, gesturing at curating his older works for a new collection, but more content to hover silently despondent in the long shadow of a childhood in Bosnia he refuses to discuss and the relationship to his wife he seems completely checked out of. Isabel, a celebrity war correspondent, has recently returned from Sudan, and while she says she’s made peace with Joseph’s many affairs, inviting Kitti to stay is another chess move in their ongoing hostilities.

While that description promises, and initially delivers, a form of domestic horror, Anderson’s penchant for frequent experimental flourishes drains the film’s dramatic tension. The picture is peppered with interludes of extended contemporary dance sequences to illustrate Isabel’s mindset when she leaves her family in the evenings to spend time alone. When Kitti and Nina take an excursion to the beach, an array of finely chiseled, and carefully positioned bodies contort and pose themselves across rocks and in speedboats as if they had have just signed up for a music video (it’s no surprise Anderson comes from a commercials background). It’s all supposed to land with weighty meaning, but in the calculated gambit by Anderson to take the audience out of the comfort zone of the story’s holiday escape, these elusive aesthetics leave us grasping for something to cling to.

This is the kind of film that winks at us by presenting a horse named Oedipus. It tries to shake us with a sequence of Kitti pissing on Joseph’s leg as he watches blankly with no reaction. Being asked to root around in the malaise of the affluent who actively refuse to communicate is already a tough ask, but the effort becomes tiresome when we’re directed to push through the film’s affectations, including the mannered performances by Abbott and Davis and the largely atonal and discordant score by K. Coti. All these choices seem by design to run against the lovely warmth of Simos Sarketzis’ 16mm cinematography, but by time the second half arrives, one’s willingness to decipher the film’s intentions starts to wane.

In the book, Levy offers her own array of riddles, but she carefully navigates the journey and threads it with enough emotional clarity that the devastating conclusion lands with a wallop. In wanting to put his own imprint on the material, and avoiding what could become a more benign but straightforward drama, Anderson overcorrects to the degree that it feels Swimming Home suffered a heat stroke on its way to the big screen.

Reviewed on January 29th / 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam – Tiger competition section. 99 mins.


Kevin Jagernauth is a Montreal-based film critic and writer. Kevin has written professionally about music and film for over 15 years, most prominently as Managing Editor of The Playlist, where he continues to contribute reviews, and he has recently joined The Film Verdict as a Contributing Critic. Kevin has attended and covered a wide range of festivals including Cannes, TIFF, Fantasia, Savannah, and more. On a consultative basis, Kevin provides script coverage for feature-length independent and international films. He is also the co-founder and co-programmer of Kopfkino, a monthly screening series of cult classics and contemporary favorites that ran from 2017-2020 in Montreal.

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