Luca Guadagnino’s new film is set on the remote Italian island of Pantelleria, the land a semi-parched paradise offering a degree of privacy for rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), who is convalescing with filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) after an operation on her vocal chords. Their idyllic, relaxing holiday seems to be going well, but the film is barely two minutes old when the peace is interrupted by gregarious, larger-than-life Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who is both Marianne’s former partner and an old friend of Paul’s. Harry arrives with newly-discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow, and a relaxing stay for two in a beautiful, rustic villa subsequently turns into an increasingly awkward, uncomfortable holiday for four in which passions old and new begin to stir.
It may nod to David Hockney’s famous painting with its title, but A Bigger Splash is actually a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, which starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Roney and Jane Birkin in the four lead roles (the setting of the earlier film, however, was St. Tropez). Not having seen the original in order to compare, I can’t really say for sure whether remaking it was truly worthwhile, though I enjoyed Guadagnino’s film, principally because the characters are interesting to follow through the movie, and I liked its numerous light, comic touches. Of the four it’s easier to read the motives and thoughts of some characters more than others. Theoretically the most enigmatic should be Marianne (a touch of David Bowie, a glimmer of Chrissie Hynde), given that she barely speaks throughout, but in fact much can be learned from certain looks she trades with others, or even from those facial reactions that are for no-one else’s eyes but the audience’s. She is under orders not to speak, but occasionally shares her whispered opinions with Paul late at night, or speaks up when provoked by Harry, but thanks to Swinton’s evident skill as an actor we assume we know what she is thinking throughout, and not just when she tells another character. Flashbacks suggest that her days with Harry were wilder, and more carefree, and this pull between present day comfort and older unpredictibality propels the narrative forward: her new boyfriend, a recovering alcoholic who attempted suicide attempt a year ago, is considerably calmer, and more mature, than her old one. But in Harry’s eyes Paul is boring, and Marianne’s life has become boring as a result. She acknowledges this, and part of her craves for the life she knows that Harry is able to provide. Tensions between Harry and Paul duly rise as Harry insists on constant partying: drinking, inviting guests round, dancing, playing loud music, organising impromptu karaoke sessions with the locals…it’s everything Paul and Marianne were supposed to be ignoring during their holiday.
Watching over proceedings in an increasingly predatory fashion is Johnson’s Penelope. Initially she seems bored by the group, and wanders off repeatedly to sunbathe, read, swim or listen to music via headphones. However gradually she gradually begins to influence events more and more, and her ultimate motives are not particularly clear: is she just out for sex? Is she widening the developing rifts because she’s bored and there’s nothing else to do? Just how vindictive is she? She seems to come alive when Harry is not around, when she is out of her father’s shadow, and the journey from passive bystander to active agitator is fascinating to watch.
Watching the plot unfold is a delight. Generally the film keeps a narrow focus on the four protagonists, though there are brief appearances by a few local women and a local policeman (an unflattering portrait of an incompetent, ignorant idiot that caused a little controversy when the film was released in Italy last year). (A Bigger Splash does also include a thread about refugees arriving by boat on the island, which certainly adds a degree of currency, though I’m not sure it adds much more of note to the film; Guadagnino said there were refugees arriving on the island while they were filming, and they included the thread to reflect reality, so fair enough.) I was interested enough in the foursome for the two hour duration, and cannily Guadagnino doesn’t simply focus on the relationships between its men and women; there are some illuminating and well-acted scenes here between Swinton and Johnson, and Fiennes and Schoenaerts, that reveal plenty. Swinton adds a layer of class to proceedings, while Fiennes – somewhat obviously, given the nature of his character – is immense fun to watch, dominating every scene he’s in with Harry’s attention-seeking antics (though given all the talk about his dance scene to The Stones’ Emotional Rescue I have to say I was a little disappointed by it). Guadagnino smartly cajoles the story along in tandem with changes to the symbolic, portentous weather: the sirocco arrives from north Africa just after Harry arrives on the island; rain is used at the end to cleanse the dusty land and buildings, while the draining of the pool also suggests a fresh start. The director focuses on other sources of water, too, foreshadowing the big splash of the title and the opening of emotional floodgates.
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino.
Written by: David Kajganich. Based on La Piscine by Alain Page.
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson.
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux.
Editing: Walter Fasano.
Running Time: 124 minutes.