Strong Performances From Abbott and Labed can’t save Swimming Home From Sinking

  • Reviewed from the 2024 International Film Festival Rotterdam

Award-winning artist Justin Anderson’s debut feature Swimming Home was one of the buzzier titles competing at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, and it’s easy to see why. First off, the film boasts an impressive cast which sees American stars Christopher Abbott and Mackenzie Davis join forces with arthouse regulars Ariane Labed (Attenberg, Alps) and Nadine Labaki (best known for directing the Oscar-nominated Capernaum back in 2018). However, if the cast was cause for curiosity, the film’s intriguing plot made Swimming Home one not to miss.

Joe (Abbott) and Isabel’s (Davis) marriage seems to be already on the rocks when they arrive at their Greek holiday home to find a mysterious woman (Labed) floating naked in the pool. She’s brash, unpretentious, oozing a mysterious, distinctly European sex appeal. Naturally, Isabel invites this vampy rando to stay in their guest house. Joe isn’t as keen; a has-been poet now stewing in a depression, Joe can be found mumbling and moping about his sun-dappled surroundings with a zombie-like expression. Kitti’s arrival sparks a reaction from him; he’s curious but cautious. Her dark presence seems a disruptive force, soon affecting the entire household.

Ariane Labed as Kitti, in Justin Anderson’s debut feature Swimming Home

Swimming Home wears its influences on its sleeve; from that brief plot description alone you should be able to pick out a few, all of which are admittedly much better films: La Piscine (1969); Le Mepris (1963); and Pasolini’s Theorem (1968). Anderson even throws in a direct reference to Un Chien Andalou (1929), which would feel earned if his film amounted to more than a collection of striking images and moody atmosphere. Granted, those images—thanks to cinematographer Simos Sarketzis—are memorable: I’m all for gazing at floppy cocks swinging by the seaside and night-time retreats to clubs where people try out their new interpretive dance moves at/on you. However, there’s something a little too hazy about Anderson’s debut, it gets by on style and little else. 

Credit to the actors, though, their fine performances offer the picture some weight, and stops it from floating away altogether. Abbot and Labed are the standouts; their dark, erotic, cat-and-mouse game powers much of the action. Davis has less to do; though, a scene involving her, a horse, and a very angry restaurateur has been replaying in my mind ever since. Anderson’s script (adapted Deborah Levy 2011 novel of the same name) is full of mannered dialogue which feels intune with the film’s general sense of unease. Lines are riddled with pauses, mannered rhythms and the odd cliche—Isabel has a cringey habit tacking on “my love” to the end of sentences when talking to Joe or their daughter, Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills).

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The elements never come together as one would hope. Not even Coti K.’s impressive score of unnerving taps, clangs and wind instruments can provide the glue. Swimming Home is not a mess by any means, but comes off like a half-baked mish-mash of better sun-drenched films, while containing the spark and sizzle of none of them. 

Featured Image Credit Courtesy of IFFR