Director Luca Guadagnino and star Tilda Swinton follow up their astonishing, sensual tour de force of I am Love (2009) with a vibrant, sexy distillation of the rock and roll lifestyle and the pitfalls of emotional rescue.
A Bigger Splash (2015, France/Italy) directed by Luca Guadagnino / starring Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson / screenplay by David Kajganich / cinematography by Yorick le Saux / companies: StudioCanal, Frenesy Film Company
Named after David Hockney’s famous painting, Guadagnino’s third feature is in-fact a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. David Kajganich’s screenplay preserves the outline of the original, off which Guadagnino dives headlong into an energetic evocation of his characters’ artistic impulses and the deceptive tranquility of love. Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson make up a perfect cast and go above and beyond the call of duty (and the need for clothing) to bring a creative energy so vivid and authentic that their characters virtually jump off the screen.
Tilda Swinton plays Marianne, a famous rock star recovering from surgery on her vocal chords and consequently unable to speak in anything more than a hoarse whisper. She and her filmmaker boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), retreat to a house on the sun-beaten slopes of the Italian island, Pantelleria, far enough south that they can even see Tunisia across the Mediterranean. Their lazy days of sunbathing naked and frolicking in their distinctly Hockneyesque pool are disturbed by the arrival of record producer and Marianne’s former partner, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his predatory daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). As they all enjoy the tastes and sensations of the island, vignettes of Marianne and Paul’s history with Harry illuminate the troubled romances that have rescued Marianne and Paul from depression and self-destructive lives. But the seven-year itch is approaching Marianne and Paul and the sexual tension within the group builds towards an inevitably violent conclusion.
As the brash, exuberant Harry, Ralph Fiennes all but steals the show. His irrepressible energy and natural talent for becoming the centre of any room simultaneously endears him to and enervates everyone around him. Fiennes paints a pitch perfect portrait of a music industry veteran whose cup runneth over with the kind of stories that are ageing artists most enchanting stock in-trade. Fiennes has said that he was encouraged to just make a tit of himself in his scene dancing around to the Rolling Stones and it sells his performance in one fell swoop. Like any good court jester, Harry’s place is not merely to provide entertainment and cheer-on his fellow artists but also to voice the home truths that no one else is willing to acknowledge. He even says as much to Matthias Schoenaerts' insular Paul as they drive back from Harry’s near miss with the edge of a cliff (blow jobs in cars are best enjoyed with the handbrake on, kids).
In contrast to Harry’s motor mouth, the decision to render Tilda Swinton’s rock star speechless is an inspired cinematic choice. Swinton has said that at the time the production rolled around, she found herself in a place where she didn’t want to say anything. She told Guadagnino, "I will come if I don't have to speak," and the decision was made to mute her character. In so doing, Swinton once again reminds the world why she is the most compelling actress working today. By forcing her to speak with her hands, her face and occasionally with a voice that derails the glamour of her rock star persona, Guadagnino makes Swinton and her reactive physical presence a part of his cinematic storytelling.
I am Love (Io sono Amore) had the feeling of a novel, whose contents had been repurposed as light, liquid, paper sketches and wild gardens, then spread across the screen in a precise but energetic arrangement. A Bigger Splash feels more like flipping through a magazine or stumbling through an art gallery drunk off your tits. In its best moments it pours across the screen like wet acrylic and clouded water. The effect is not as enchanting as that of I am Love but no less watchable. However, this description should do no disservice to the craftsmanship of Yorick le Saux’ cinematography and its use of the landscape of the island and physiques of the actors. The ghost of Michelangelo Antonioni is alive and well here and it is interesting – if not always totally effective – to see Guadagnino pinching whatever takes his fancy from all periods of Antonioni’s work.
Guadagnino has said of Hockney’s 1967 painting, ‘A Bigger Splash’, that it was the first piece that helped him to understand what art was and Hockney's presence can be felt in more ways than one. Anarchic, energetic cuts and camera movements born of spontaneous creativity shake up careful, deliberate compositions. Everything conventional in the photography is eventually subverted, even to the point that the hallowed 180-degree rule of cinematography gets a cheeky pinch on the bum. Guadagnino succeeds in making a true rock’n’roll film, one that appropriates and matches the punchy stylings of Martin Scorsese and is equally capable of reversing its peace-into-anarchy dynamic. As in Hockney’s painting, the frisson inherent in diving from the world above into the calm of the water can be felt by those beside the swimming pool as much as it can by those within it.
The soundtrack is a formidable collage of seventies rock and classical pieces. Repeated use of Harry Nilsson’s ‘Jump into the Fire’ brings a distinctly Scorsesean energy to the proceedings. But Guadagnino’s choices can stray into incongruous territory. When the story takes a turn for tragedy, the use of Popol Vuh’s score for Aguirre, Wrath of God is so heavy, so at odds with the sexual and romantic story that came before, that it comes across as more self-conscious than appropriately jarring. It’s almost as if Gaudagnino is dressing up a last-minute failure of confidence in his characters with a virtuoso choice of music.
A Bigger Splash suffers from a confusing narrative failure in its final act. The presence of African refugees and migrants arriving illegally on the island underscores the bubble of privilege that our characters exist in and their peripheral tie-in to the finale invites a harsh judgment of the irresponsible couple, Marianne and Paul, but feels like an after-thought. The tragic post-script to the sexual tension that bubbles away in every scene – particularly those with the effervescent Dakota Johnson – is sensual in itself but it kicks-off a series of events that would usually begin most other narratives. Here it feels as if the whole plot could have been the back-story to an uncharacteristically glamorous episode of Inspector Morse as the dynamic between the characters becomes mired in external problems and a satisfying ending almost gets lost in conventional dramatic plotting. It says a great deal in favour of Swinton, Schoenaerts, Fiennes and Johnson’s remarkable performances that the film can end with the sense that for all their denial and stubbornness, these characters have reached a new understanding of their vivid but isolated place in the world.
A Bigger Splash has one more screening coming up at the London Film Festival and will resurface in the UK on 12th February next year and in the US on 13th May.