Swimming in the fast lane

Swimmer_04_00154874©Ingenue Productions 2021
Nevo (Asaf Jonas, left) and Erez (Omer Perelman Striks, right).
Strand Releasing

There are waves of homoeroticism and a strong gay undercurrent in “The Swimmer,” writer/director Adam Kalderon’s intense, arty drama about Israeli Olympic hopefuls.

The film opens with a fabulous credit sequence featuring buff bodies being shaved. (The colors of the Israeli flag, blue and white, are used for both the shaving cream and for the titles). The story begins as Erez (Omer Perelman Striks) is dropped off at a training camp run by Dima (Igal Reznik). Erez is here to “punch the Olympic ticket” as only one of the five other competitors at the camp will be selected for Team Israel.

Erez has a strong chance; he finishes first in several (but not all) of the rigorous training exercises. And Kalderon focuses on not just on the lithe, speedo-clad bodies in the water, but also the sweat and muscles of these athletes as they compete in a bent arm hang.

It soon becomes clear that Nevo (Asaf Jonas), is Erez’s biggest rival. He also appears to be the object of Erez’s secret crush. The two guys start spending time together, and their bromance quickly catches the attention not only of the other swimmers, but also Dima, who warns Erez publicly and privately about relationships. The camp rule is that everyone sleeps alone.

“The Swimmer” builds its drama on the Erez-Nevo relationship. In one scene, Erez steals Nevo’s briefs, privately sniffing them and jerking off. (Kalderon films the latter act in silhouette, one of his many smart visual choices). Erez also conspires to get Nevo alone by ratting out Maya (May Kurtz), a gymnast at the camp who seems to be spending free time with Nevo.

Dima keeps warning Erez to look out for himself, but Erez claims his closeness to Nevo is a form of psychological warfare — keeping the enemy close. (In one practice they swim so near each other as to almost be touching, which Dima criticizes.)

Gay viewers know that Erez really wants to couple up with Nevo, and “The Swimmer” dangles this possibility often. Viewers will be caught up in the drama, pining for the guys to kiss, if not have sex, even if it is taboo. A scene where the guys are sharing a joint brims with sexual possibilities — especially when Erez and Nevo both piss into a water bottle and Nevo dares Erez to drink it, promising to give him, “anything he wants,” if he does. As they both sleep in the same room that night, the guys’ naked or near-naked body language expresses their unspoken desires and the sexual tension between them.

Kalderon films “The Swimmer” in ways that play up the masculinity of the guys and their bodies. It is not just that the film is filled with hot, fit, young men mostly in speedos, but that their horseplay in the pool or the showers involve codes of male conduct and contact. The word “faggot” is used on several occasions, and Erez is also referred to as a “girl,” which may be jealous reactions to his skill, and a way of unnerving him. His pink sweats and dyed hair generate comments and certainly alienate him from the other swimmers. But there is a strong sense of homophobia in the camp; Dima repeatedly warns Erez about his behavior without explicitly naming it as “gay.”

While all of this is conveyed in a very strong and sometimes subtle way, like Erez, “The Swimmer” loses some of its goodwill as the pressure mounts. Erez starts to behave recklessly, both in his training and in a scene where he shaves Nevo’s bathing suit area. The action here feels contrived where the rest of the film feels controlled.

As Erez changes and becomes more severe in both his look and his actions, viewers may lose sympathy for this frustrated gay man. Omer Perelman Striks handles the physical and mental transitions well. A scene of him trying on an Olympic outfit belonging to Paloma (Nadia Kucher), a coach at the camp, and posing in it is particularly revealing. Erez expresses both his personal and professional sides in this singular moment. That Erez is hiding and wearing the outfit when Dima knocks on Paloma’s door to raise his concerns about the swimmer, only adds another layer of meaning.

As the dramatic tension builds with an athlete suffering cramps to Erez being told he may not be able to compete, “The Swimmer” culminates with the big climactic race. Shrewdly, Kalderon shoots it in a style that eschew men just swimming in a pool. Viewers who appreciate his clever decision — and there are sure to be some who may not — will admire this beguiling film.

“The Swimmer” | Directed by Adam Kalderon | Opening October 7 at the Quad Cinema | Distributed by Strand Releasing