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Surrealism In The Sun: 'The Swimmer' At BFI Film On Film Festival


Burt Lancaster in 'The Swimmer' (1968)
The Swimmer (1968); image courtesy of BFI

Screened for likely the last time on its original Technicolour dye-transfer print, watching Frank Perry’s 1968 film The Swimmer on the big screen felt even more momentous given that this already hidden gem will likely be lost in memory forever. Despite the tragic provenance of this print, however, this screening by no means marked the end of an era. The surrealist class criticisms of John Cheever’s original New Yorker short story connect to us in a way that seems to transcend the celluloid’s material transience.


As with much of BFI Film on Film, this transience brings to light the endurance of the themes in the film: as we will explore, celluloid is as transient as we humans, forming a deeper connection to the viewer than digital ever could.


We open on family man Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), sporting only a pair of speedos, running through a small, wooded area before coming out in somebody’s garden. In one smooth motion, Ned dives straight into their luminous blue swimming pool, appearing at the other end in time for the director’s credit, where he is greeted by the pool owners, his old friends Donald (Tony Bickley) and Helen Westerhazy (Diana Van Der Vlis). After some casual conversation about superfluous middle-class problems, exerted through dated tones, Ned has the “brilliant” idea to ‘swim home’, dipping in every pool in every back yard of the succession of neighbours before he reaches his own at the other end of the valley. This sets up the plot, very neatly, for the rest of the film.


In this undertaking, we never actually see Ned in anything more than his swimming trunks. The films Technicolour projection bounces vivid rays of colourful light off the screen and into our eyes. The glistening water, colourful swimming costumes and the olive hues of Lancaster’s sculped body all radiate warm colours.


Burt Lancaster in 'The Swimmer' (1968)
The Swimmer (1968); image courtesy of BFI

This is an opportunity for eye-candy not missed by Perry, who makes Lancaster jump over horse jumps in slo-mo and through grassland with the deer to create an exhibition of hyper-masculinity akin to the recent Adam Driver/Burberry campaign. After all, Burt Lancaster was one of a few embodiments of sexualised masculinity that Hollywood used for their pictures throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s (there is a reason that the beach scene in From Here to Eternity (1953) was awarded the sexiest screen kiss of all time in a 1992 Gallup poll).


However, in The Swimmer, sexualised masculinity is itself the subject of criticism. With 99% of the film’s 95-minute duration displaying Lancaster’s semi-naked body, a sense of vulnerability is quickly picked up as he moves between different environments. In his essay “Mad About the Boy? Hollywood Stardom and Masculinity Subverted in The Swimmer”, Christopher R. Brown was quick to pick up, in response to Steve Neale and Laura Mulvey’s explorations of gendered gaze in cinema in the early 1970s, on the masochistic side of this display of hyper-masculinity—after all, despite its glorification, Lancaster/Ned is only human, which becomes painfully clear in the film’s ambiguous ending.


In his analysis of the film, Brown points to ‘naturalist’ filmmaking practices popular at the time, which were one artistic response from the USA’s political left to the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Such films value an objective approach to the human body, rather than using it as a gateway to the subject beneath—in a nutshell, they epitomise the statement “we’re only human”.


Burt Lancaster and Janet Langard in 'The Swimmer' (1968)
The Swimmer (1968); image courtesy of BFI

This is the presentation of humanity that Perry wants to show, filming Ned’s inevitable injuries completely objectively. It is perhaps ironic, therefore, that Burt Lancaster very openly forbade the practice of “touching the money” on the set of The Swimmer (a practice where supporting characters would touch the talent to nab some screentime, according to Brown). Lancaster’s body type certainly represented a specific sexual culture of the 1950s, but its presentation in The Swimmer is a lot more vulnerable (and, indeed, realistic).


It seems appropriate, then, that Film on Film, a festival dedicated to showcasing the tension between timeless cinema and the bubbling ephemerality of celluloid, would screen a film exploring the precedent of a hyper-masculine sex symbol over the expiring human underneath (particularly given that this was the last safe screening of the print before it becomes too susceptible to damage).


So, both The Swimmer and the festival overall tell us that cinema has the power to transcend the limited lifespan of the celluloid on which we experience it. The New Yorker is a magazine not afraid to publish critical stories about current affairs, but, while the film’s various criticisms of the cinematic sex symbol and modern luxury life pertain to the 1960s, discussion of such issues is ongoing. The celluloid frame may be decaying, but this only elevates the importance of the story within; the film may be of a different time, but the themes, just like the Technicolour magic, ring true nonetheless.


'The Swimmer' was screened as part of BFI Film on Film Festival which ran from 8th to 11th June 2023 at BFI Southbank. You can find out more about their upcoming seasons here, or follow them on Twitter for updates.

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