BFI Flare Film Festival 2022 Review: The Swimmer ★★★★

Director-screenwriter Adam Kalderon brings The Swimmer to the BFI Flare Festival with the feature presenting a glimpse into the homophobia within the world of competitive sport. Kalderon draws inspiration from his own story as a competitive swimmer in his native Israel for the feature which captures repression of one’s identity amidst smouldering sexual tension within claustrophobic, toxic surroundings.

Centring on talented swimmer Erez (Omer Perelman Striks) who finds himself relocating to an elite training camp where he, amongst several other young men, is in contention to represent Israel at the Olympics. Quick to form a bond with teammate Nevo (Asaf Jonas), an overwhelming connection soon forms. However, a strict zero tolerance policy on distractions is exerted by their tough coach proving a challenge for the young athletes. Faced with the physical and psychological pressure of training, alongside the pressure of suppressing his desires and identity, Erez desperately fights for control.

The Swimmer is a film that navigates its tones perfectly, managing to explore territory that is challenging and dark as a culture of homophobia and authority rules the training camp, yet also able to produce brightness, flair and optimism alongside a healthy dose of homoeroticism. Opening with a titillating credit sequence of Adonis like bodies waxed as electronic pop act The Penelopes (who craft the score here) blast, we get a sense of the sharp stylistic swagger of Kalderon’s feature. A brightness – channelled in the mise-en-scène, costumes, and soundtrack shimmers throughout The Swimmer, something juxtaposed with the emergence of some uncomfortable and hard-hitting realities of the intolerance of the sporting world.

The Swimmer exemplifies the toxic atmosphere of the training camp – from teammates casually throwing around the word ‘faggot’ in the showers to coach Dema’s blatant disdain for Erez. The young athlete is not free to express himself truly with the strict coach’s regulations stamping out any grain of individuality or self-authenticity from the swimmers. At points it seems like Erez can cope in this environment – he’s an undeniably talented swimmer and physically tough (as a challenging scene of Erez pushing through press-ups covered in weighty chains exemplifies) – yet it soon becomes evident that the psychological turmoil of repression and the toxicity of his environment can strike even the strongest of athletes.

This uncompromising environment crafted by Kalderon helps us become drawn further into the bond between Erez and Nevo. This serves as an escape from the pressures of training, where little glimpses of Erez’s authentic self can be unleashed in this bond. Actors Striks and Jonas beautifully capture the bond between the men (in dire need of a release), whilst the sexual tension between the two is orchestrated in a meticulously titillating fashion. These perfect physical specimens adorning speedos ninety percent of their day, whilst bonding allows for some well-crafted moments of longing (predominantly on Erez’s part) including glimpses in the showers, flirtation centred around peeing a bottle, an eroticised sleepover, and a tense shaving scene help build this up. There’s also the stark justification that even homophobia exists in a world where perfectly toned male bodies are on display all day.

Supporting characters gradually reveal a deeper level of The Swimmer’s narrative – most impressively Nadia Kucher as former Olympian gymnast Paloma – now a coach at the training centre. The bond explored between Erez and Paloma is an interesting one, with the glamorous former sportswoman one of the keys to Erez’s increasing defiance and self-expression. This leads to Kalderon’s impeccable conclusion, one that ends on a beautifully optimistic note, which sees The Swimmer take on some impressive surrealist tones through Ofer Inov’s vibrant cinematography and strikingly choreographed moments.

The Swimmer delves into the problematic and toxic world of homophobia in the world of sports, yet simultaneously presents an uplifting story of self-expression and authenticity. Paired with strikingly colourful aesthetics, an energetic score, and compelling performances from Striks and Jonas, The Swimmer is a scintillatingly compelling tale, magnetically shared by Kalderon.

The Swimmer plays as part of the BFI Flare Festival. Screening details can be found here.

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