Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist
Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1968) is a chamber piece with wide horizons: a hell-is-other-people Huis clos set amid Mediterranean seascapes, volcanic rocks and references to drowning refugees and migrants. The original’s tight nexus of Riviera high-life, epicurean appetites and fatal attractions is transposed to the far less sophisticated milieu of Pantelleria, an island south of Sicily which still proudly shows its roots with Catholic saint-day festivals and artisanal ricotta-making. The four central characters are interlopers in this world but made very welcome by the locals. The way they act out their return-of-the-repressed drama, though, has little to do with the convivial setting; the main thing is that the sweltering climate justifies a lot of stripping off. Whether the sexual and emotional shenanigans gain or lose from being set in Pantelleria is moot.
Certificate 15 124m 21s
Director Luca Guadagnino
Harry Hawkes Ralph Fiennes
Penelope Lannier Dakota Johnson
Paul de Smedt Matthias Schoenaerts
Marianne Lane Tilda Swinton
Mireille Aurore Clément
Clara Elena Bucci
Sylvie Lily McMenamy
La Mattina, police marshal Corrado Guzzanti
The four protagonists devolve into a triangle (with a rather complicated backstory) and a supporting provocateuse. Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is an ageing rock star who has lost her voice; she is recuperating from surgery to her throat, speaking only rarely in a hoarse whisper to protect her larynx. Flashbacks reveal that she commanded stadium-sized audiences and went for the androgynous persona and outré costumes of 70s David Bowie, combined with Mick Jagger’s stage swagger and Michael Stipe’s slash of colour across the eyes. She now lives very happily with Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sometime video cameraman who’s in remission from alcoholism after injuring himself in a car crash and spending time in rehab.
Their lives are turned upside down by the man who first introduced them to each other: Marianne’s former record producer/lover Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who shows up with next to no warning on a visit with his nubile, newly discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow. Harry very soon makes it clear to Marianne that he wants to win her back from Paul. It’s implied that Harry may have brought along Penelope (who may not be his daughter; there hasn’t been a DNA test) specifically to offside Paul.
Harry has all the charm and finesse of Anish Kapoor’s wax battering ram. He has no self-censorship filter, is always the life and soul of the party, railroads his own wishes through anyone else’s objections and frequently gets naked around the pool at the villa. He has primed Penelope to ask Paul intrusive and insensitive questions about his alcoholism and the car crash, so the two visitors present a sustained assault on the couple’s secluded calm. But Guadagnino is much more interested in giving his cast room to ‘perform’ than in honing a plot: the storytelling is languorous and, in fact, so long-drawn-out that it’s a mystery why the hosts don’t tell the guests to leave long before their provocations lead to a death in the pool. The film is marginally shorter than La Piscine but feels very much longer. A thriller it is not.
In his press-kit interview, Guadagnino waffles at length about a “fracture” between the rock ’n’ roll excesses of the late 20th century and “a sort of new conservatism”, which he relates to a generational shift. But that suggests that Penelope (the only young person involved) is defined by her distance from Harry’s behaviour and enthusiasms; it seems more salient that she alternates between stereotypically petulant American teen and cruel nymphet.
As reimagined by Guadagnino and his writer David Kajganich, the story definitely does now contrast Harry’s Peter Pan-like refusal to grow up with Marianne’s need and desire for a quieter life, although the flashbacks are used to express her still-latent addiction to fast living. In any case, the silly pretensions that have made Guadagnino such a bête noire to Italian critics are substantially eclipsed by the generally diverting spectacle of four excellent actors letting it all hang out in the service of a torrid, high-class soap.
At its best A Bigger Splash is better than soap. Marianne’s near-silence (apparently Swinton’s own idea; Guadagnino admits that it has spared us reams of dialogue) makes her mime of orgasm when Paul goes down on her all the more ecstatic. And Fiennes is outstanding in Harry’s two musical set pieces: an unstoppable action replay of how he produced Voodoo Lounge for the Rolling Stones, and a scene-stealing turn at a karaoke night. The enigma that hangs over the whole thing is not so much what degree of guilt one of the characters bears for the pool death but rather why Guadagnino nicked the title of a gay David Hockney painting (and a Jack Hazan docudrama) for his remake.
Island of lost souls
In Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, Ralph Fiennes gives a blistering performance as a motormouth rock impresario seeking to win back his former girlfriend. Here the director explains the evolution of the project and why he believes cinema is losing its identity as a visual medium. By Nick James.
Also recommended this week
Director Stephen Fingleton | United Kingdom/Germany 2015 | On limited release and VoD
A spare but confident post-civilisation three-way chamber drama that puts human motivations to a rigorously unsentimental test. Reviewed by Anton Bitel in our March 2016 issue:
“While post-apocalyptic cinema is often sparse and intimate, it is also typically arid – think of the dry desertscapes of the Max Max franchise, or the desaturated dead zones of John Hillcoat’s The Road – whereas in Fingleton’s vision, humanity’s loss has been the rest of nature’s gain.”