He’s tanned, buff, smiling, he’s Burt Lancaster. It’s him and no one else that the director Frank Perry and his screenwriter wife want. In Hollywood his nickname is “Mr Muscles & teeth”. Since the 1940s, he has played an Apache, a cowboy, a pirate, a bandit. Off-screen he took up the cause of Martin Luther King and protested against the Vietnam War. He’s a star. He’s 55, still has magnificent blue eyes, and already has two weddings under his belt when he accepts the leading role in The Swimmer, one of his favorite characters. The movie is released in the US on 15 May 1968 when in Paris at the same moment one can read on the city’s walls: “Run, comrade, the old world is behind you”.
The Swimmer is an improbable road-movie. In his bathing suit “Mr Muscles & teeth” will traverse the American way of life attributes of his W.A.S.P. neighbours, from one swimming-pool to another, such is his pleasure. He decides to do so that he may find, at the top of the hill, his wife Lucinda and their two beloved daughters. This crossing, he declares, will be the “Lucinda’s river”.
Whilst vigorously diving, racingly breast stroking, majestically crawling, the man, embodying various aspects of the Name-of-the-Father, is at ease, smiling, in harmony with the blue of the Connecticut sky and the pool. Whilst swimming the hero is safe from an increasingly insistent truth stressed [made clear: it is not clear, it is crescendo, at the beginning it’s only allusive] to him each time he gets out of the water: C.E.O., he’d no longer be in that post. Good friend, he’d have forgotten about some funerals. Married, he’d be actually separated. Daddy, his obedient daughters would in fact fool him. Old handsome, he’s so insistent the baby-sitter finally runs away. Affable, yet a little bit racist. Lover, he’d be too boring. Enough already! No more! To go through the Lucinda’s river is actually to do penance and up the hill it leads to the shell of a house: a family home that has been deserted for a long time. Tears shake the sky as well as the collapsed athlete. The movie to say the least bewilders. It’s a flop. In Hollywood the fall of the Name-of-the-Father won’t make a dime.
This fall does not mean that the discourse of the master is thrown away. It remains in the background. Each approach to a pool is the occasion for a scene, a dialogue in which one of the aspects of this American way of life discourse is presented by the neighbourhood. The hippie utopia of the Flower power, born a year earlier the movie’s release, is not in the picture. The director does not dwell on this, preferring to focus on the swimmer’s interlocutor.
A marker of mundanity, the pool is never occupied by the neighbours: only Lancaster’s body is required to renew its rejuvenating bath. This water, the object of all modernities that chlorinate, filter and purify, dispenses with Heraclitean virtue: no flow or time in motion here, the hero bathes twice in the same river. It is the clarity of its stagnation that shines. No matter the fluid’s shape and size, it is its sameness that is cherished. Sigmund Freud referred to drugs as a Sorgenbrecher, literally a worry-breaker: here we are. One dives in and glides along very well.
50 years after The Swimmer’s release, the American way of life continues its transformation as much as possible and, in Connecticut as elsewhere in the US, the problem of water use and availability has become a national issue in 2014 under Obama government. It’s not just the patriarchy that is sinking.
References from the author:
 For the French version: Freud S., Le malaise dans la culture, Œuvres Complètes, vol. XVIII, Paris, Puf, 2002, p. 264-265. For the English version: Freud S., Civilization and Its Discontents wherein it is translated by “drowner of cares” by James Strachey. https://www.stephenhicks.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/FreudS-CIVILIZATION-AND-ITS-DISCONTENTS-text-final.pdf.
Translation by the author
Proofreading: Robyn Adler
Picture : © Elena Madera