The Swimmer

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Swimmer
"It’s Kalderon's intimate understanding of the sport and its psychology that give this film its strength." | Photo: Peccadillo Pictures

“Some people believe in God,” says Erez (Omer Perelman Striks). “Me, I believe in Madonna.”

It takes a lot of faith to do what Erez is doing – to commit oneself, at a young age, to an all-consuming training regime in pursuit of a chance which will come once, at most twice in a lifetime: to represent his country at the Olympic Games. To stay at a training camp out in the desert where visits are rare and the forming of friendships amongst the athletes strongly discouraged. It’s all the tougher given that he’s attracted to men, and the camp is full of casually homophobic banter, with an explicitly homophobic trainer at the helm. But Erez is the sort of person who thrives on challenges. The danger is that he’ll let them consume him.

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The Swimmer is based on the real experiences of director Adam Kalderon, who was himself an Olympic contender at one point, also contending with homophobia. It’s his intimate understanding of the sport and its psychology that give this film its strength. It’s there in the bodies of the actors, all of whom trained to get the distinctive smoothly muscled look, and in the way the camera observes their bodies. It’s there is the contrast between the dry, rough-textured desert and the scrupulously clean, almost clinical interiors of the training facility, where one can almost smell the chlorine. Kalderon made his way into filmmaking through costume design and every piece of athletic costuming – some of which come from his own personal collection – tells a story.

It’s also there in the sounds made by the water, the quietness beneath the surface, the sense of isolation present even during group training activities. Swimming is a sport in which one focuses less on competing with other people than on straining against the limits of one’s own body. Erez is in danger of becoming locked in a psychologically self-destructive cycle. There are moments of humour and beauty in his friendship with a former gymnast who immediately seems to see him for who he really is, shows him her old costumes, brings a vivid splash of pink into his blue world.

Coming out so close to Lauren Hadaway’s film about sport, obsession and self-destruction, The Novice, The Swimmer initially seems to be navigating the same waters, but goes on to take a very different direction. What does success mean to Erez? is it limited to the pursuit of gold medals? Might it also come from his pursuit of fellow swimmer Nevo (Asaf Jonas), with whom he will have a morally and emotionally complex encounter? Or is there something more important than either? With his spectacularly choreographed final sequence, Kalderon breaks free of the familiar logic of the sports film and brings us tantalisingly close to remembering why sport matters in the first place.

There are some sublime visual sequences here, not least the one over which the opening credits unfold, which shows us a body being shaved in preparation for a race. A vibrant electro-pop soundtrack by French band The Penelopes lends the film a distinctive energy. Some viewers might be disappointed by its lack of warmth. It’s a very internally focused tale, in keeping with the solitary nature of the sport. It doesn’t work hard to win over the viewer, but it does open a door and offer a glimpse into a world which few will ever experience for themselves. That door might also offer a way out.

Reviewed on: 26 Mar 2022
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Having earned himself a coveted spot at an elite training camp, talented swimmer Erez finds himself thrust into an unforgiving world of sporting rivalry, battling against his peers for a place on the Israeli Olympic swimming team - while falling for a teammate.

Director: Adam Kalderon

Writer: Adam Kalderon

Starring: Omer Perelman Striks, Asaf Jonas, Nadia Kucher

Year: 2021

Runtime: 83 minutes

Country: Israel

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