The films of husband-and-wife team Frank and Eleanor Perry are amongst the most undervalued of the wave of semi-independent American films of the 70s. In titles like Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Play It As It Lays (1972) they tackled a specifically contemporary sense of malaise and neurosis, on both coasts, in a way comparable really only to some of Woody Allen, with a slightly gauche self-seriousness in place of the comedy.
Their best-known picture is The Swimmer, partly thanks to a fine performance from Burt Lancaster in nothing but a pair of swimming trunks throughout, and partly because it’s really rather odd. From the idyllic Connecticut woodland emerges a mysterious, near-naked figure, making his way to the poolside of a wealthy residence. He is Ned Merrill, an old pal of the couple at the pool, somehow a part of their complacent, martinis-at-lunchtime world, but somehow definitely not. All is cheerful and chummy, but there is something wrong, a hint of parody in the banal dialogue, and gradually we will learn that Lancaster’s bright blue eyes twinkle less with optimism and idealism, than with something like a desperate insanity.
Merrill gazes over the wooded valley and declares he will swim home, via the pools of his friends between him and his home on the hill. Along the way, he urges various women to come with him, but he always ends up alone and shivering. Friendliness soon gives way to hostility as he is increasingly mistrust, ordered off property, and spurned at a grotesque, plastic pool party (at which no-one is swimming). We never learn where he has come from, quite how long he has been away, or what went wrong, but Merrill is revealed to be a very broken man, even before the bleak ending (a tad over-directed, but effectively chilling).
The film’s strangeness also stems from its being a remarkably bold and singular experiment in allegory, occasionally over-emphatic (particularly Marv Hamlisch’s overbearing score), but open-ended enough to get under the skin. Merrill begins as a force of nature – he relishes the pools in which his friends won’t set foot; “Live a little” he says, but they won’t. He runs with horses, and joyfully takes their jumps; but he limps through the second half of the film after a bum landing, and when he urges a little boy to be “captain of your soul” we very shortly are reminded that delusions can be dangerous. Merrill’s state of idealism is detached from reality; his madness is that he prefers it that way. His last stop is at a public pool, a horrible, writhing mass of flesh in water, all too real, where he’s forced to show his feet for inspection like in jail, and the truths of his own home are finally aired. They don’t sink in, however – his escape from the prison of reality is total, until he finally reaches home – the real world is ghastly, but cannot finally be denied. If Merrill’s journey along the river of pools is something like the journey of life, we may be accompanied along some of the way, but will always end alone. The tragedy is in the broken beauty of Merrill’s inchoate ideal, versus the only visible alternative, of shallow complacence. Self-deception as the only way to cope.