I am tempted to call The Swimmer a pretentious fable about the waters of life. It is set in the upper echelon of Connecticut society, but the same cross-section might hold true in California as well. In fact, one could say this film effectively extends the pool metaphor of The Graduate (1967).
Because it is indicative of not simply prosperity, but “The American Dream” as well, synonymous with plastics and water filters that filter out 99.99 of all solid matter. Whereas Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) floats along in the water lazily, not quite sure what he is doing after graduation, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) has a completely different experience, though he does live in the same WASP bubble.
For him, he forms some quixotic fantasy to swim his way back up the hill to his home, making his way by taking a dip in everyone’s pool on the road there. It dawns on him that “Pool by pool they form a river all the way to our house” and so he takes a swim down memory lane.
Each new home he comes upon puts him in contact with old friends, neighbors, children, acquaintances who never want to see his guts again, and various social gatherings. We don’t necessarily have enough time to make any judgments on those around him — they might easily come out of Mike Nichol’s film as well — but we do see an awful lot of “Neddy.”
What is extraordinary and simultaneously maddening about The Swimmer is how it blends dream-like, sun-soaked imagery verging on the surreal with these real-world scenarios. We can easily imagine a real-life counterpart to each of these people existing in the flesh and yet the film is never concerned about drawing them out.
It’s playing with the landscape and reveling in its own metaphor. We have refracting light cutting through the trees, deep piercing irises staring off into the distance unblinkingly. Vaulting bodies and galloping legs provide the continuous motion to propel our picture ever onward even as it languishes in these self-indulgent asides.
Because there are many encounters between all of Merrill’s swimming strokes, the best recourse is to highlight only a few. Julie Ann Hooper (Janet Langard) is the pert young babysitter who agrees to join Mr. Merrill on his endeavor. Between quotations from the lurid Song of Solomon and admissions of girlish crushes, they have a fine time.
But every moment of gaiety is just as easily forfeited when all the pretense of fun and games are lost in the face of ugly reality. Ned tries to play their relationship off as something innocent, but it verges on the uncomfortable time and time again. There comes a point of no return.
Another telling moment comes when he happens upon Shirley (Janice Rule who replaced Barbara Loden), a woman reclining poolside with a magazine in hand. It comes out that they had a messy history together. He was the philandering husband and she the “other woman.”
Her defense mechanisms are those of bitterness and acerbic retorts. Within this context, she feels merciless, and yet one must admit she has a reason for harboring a grudge. Again, it speaks to Ned — this “suburban stud” who has insulated himself with agreeable fantasies. He doesn’t realize how he has harmed others.
His final leg — arguably the most telling — is at a public pool where his decadent delusions are rudely shattered for good. These folks do not have the pretense of all his affluent friends and so they view his life with a certain amount of aversion. They see right through his facades, and they aren’t buying the schlock he’s peddling. It turns out his life is a decaying, crumbling mess on all fronts.
Cocktail parties and rivers of champagne only serve to exasperate the problems at hand as the men and the families they hold up begin to fracture under the weight. Underneath the surface of the water, fissures have riddled his very foundation. He cannot hide them any longer. It’s only in the final minutes we realize how very dire the situation is.
Burt Lancaster, from a physical standpoint, seems like a marvel, defying his age as he streaks through the woods like a youthful buck and churning through the pools with methodical ease.
He’s still capable of making the ladies swoon too but there’s the ever-present undercurrent there. There’s this quality to him — capable of being the cad and somehow tragic in the same sense — that’s ever arresting. Just look into his eyes and you know it to be true. It’s quite a stirring performance and as the most important piece to this drama, he more than accommodates the audience.