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“Swimming Home” reviewed

This movie version of Deborah Levy’s celebrated novel Swimming Home is frankly uncomfortable in the most wrong way possible. Film-maker and artist Justin Anderson has established himself as a creative visual talent but for this feature debut he has somehow conjured awful, torpid performances from his excellent cast, perpetually crowding up to them with pedantic, over-determined closeups. His film insists on a bafflingly unsexy and uninteresting type of erotic tension and conflates the result with a supposed repressed agony from the Bosnian war – which is invoked in the most glib and perfunctory way.

Joe (Christopher Abbott) is a famous poet of Bosnian extraction arriving at a luxurious holiday villa in Greece with his American wife Isabel (Mackenzie Davis), supposedly a foreign correspondent back from some traumatic assignment. Joe is depressed and creatively blocked; Isabel is subdued after the (unspecified) horrors on which she has just been reporting – and their marriage has been troubled. But from their performances it isn’t clear how intentional this numbed behaviour is supposed to be.

With them is their moody teen daughter Nina (Freya Hannan-Mills), their driver, and their stylish academic friend from Paris, Laura (Nadine Labaki). On arrival, they are disconcerted to find a beautiful, young naked woman drifting in their pool – this is Kitti (played by the charismatic Ariane Labed).

She turns out to be a friend of the driver’s, who apologetically offers to find Kitti a place in town. But perhaps constrained by a need to show herself airily unconcerned by bourgeois scruple, and perhaps by a further, angry need to test her husband’s fidelity, Isabel insists that Kitti stay and their guest’s disruptive allure starts to affect everyone.

Obviously, the sexy swimming pool setup will recall Jacques Deray’s La Piscine of 1969, with Alain Delon, Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin – remade by Luca Guadagnino as A Bigger Splash in 2015 with Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson. There may also be something in the title from the John Cheever short story adapted as The Swimmer in 1968 with Burt Lancaster. None of these resemblances work against the film at all, but it is so weirdly inert, lacking the sensuality and languor that should surely be there.

The most peculiar aspect is the fact that the characters keep – on various walks to the beach – chancing across a group of naked sunbathing people nearby; at one stage, a muscular nude man on a boat is striking a pose while holding up a lit flare (in daylight). “Take me with you!” Isabel calls out to him wanly. These naked people may or may not have something to do with Isabel’s bizarre memories or fantasies of being at some kind of sex club dance-cabaret where the performers keep doing the upside down “crab” position much favoured by the possessed girl in The Exorcist. In response, Isabel does a pained expression: a classic demonstration of what Joey Tribbiani in Friends called “smell the fart” acting.

And so it continues in its exasperatingly self-conscious way with the various unexpected dimensions and possibilities of Kitti’s presence emerging and Joe’s agonised childhood memories rising to the surface. Occasionally, the film comes to life, when it isn’t striving for unearned solemnity. I liked the surreal departure of Isabel leading a pony into a beachfront restaurant, to the owner’s spluttering outrage. But this is an odd misfire.