A Bigger Splash
If you were a filmmaker with an ambition to a make an impact, you might reconsider whether you would be likely to do so with a remake. But A Bigger Splash, the latest offering from director Luca Guadagnino, (a retake more than remake of the 1969 Alain Delon classic, La Piscine), is nonetheless itself destined for the classic shelves of Italian cinema and will, in all probability, muscle its way eventually into the pantheon of notable world cinema.
Deservedly so. This, it has to be said, is some achievement for a film which, in many ways, looks like a patchwork homage to a kaleidoscope of Italian and world cinema classics (and with no little amount of deference to some recent less well known productions, which have proved their own worthiness). However, reflecting a memorable traditional ricotta-making scene late into the film, the secret of this success is not just in the ingredients but in the cooking.
Set on a tiny speck of Mediterranean rock, far from the reaches of ordinary mortal tourists and poking paparazzi, the remote island of Pantelleria plays host to a rock star, in the late stage of her career, recuperating from a recent vocal cord operation. Marianne Lane is a hybrid Patti Smith-Chrissie Hind under doctors’ orders to stay off stage and avoid speaking.
Lane, played by a suitably heteromorphic Tilda Swinton (a Guadagnino muse), has dragged along Paul (the beefy and gorgeous Matthias Schoenaerts) to keep her company. Eye candy Schoenaerts is cast as a man-child with little to offer intellectually, though quite adequate to the purpose of sating Lane’s seemingly boundless sexual energy – an aspect disclosed in the first thirty seconds of the film in a raunchy swimming pool sex scene worthy only of the brilliant and unassailable Swinton.
The weather is nice, the island is idyllic and there is a rich and beautiful couple having a great time, even if one of them is as hoarse as hell. So far so good.
However, with Swinton in the mix, something fishy has got to be afoot. And, indeed, it so happens that her Achilles’ heel trots dutifully along in the form of the effervescent Harry Hawkes. Hawkes is a maniacal, bi-polar, crystal meth abusing manager-producer who also happens to be Lane’s ex-husband. In a return to the form, the likes of which we have probably not seen since his memorable output of the mid 90s (The English Patient, Schindler’s List), Ralph Fiennes shakes off all inhibitions, literally and metaphorically, to make his presence on the island the catalyst through which his and Lane’s past is painfully prised open. And it is painful.
The accomplishment of Guadagnino’s film is the manner in which he makes nakedness almost geological, like the landscape he uses and the culture and food of the island as characters in themselves. Employing the rocks, the dry baking heat, the menace of the Sirocco winds, the suspicious and bemused locals, the seemingly harmless traditional preparation of ricotta, the director stirs the pot of Hawkes’ and Lane’s complex and heated relationship, slowly bringing it to boiling point.
The jittery camera work following the occasional drives around the island’s dizzying roadways multiplies the simmering tension mounting between the protagonists. Lingering landscape shots, strongly reminiscent of Joanne Hogg’s less glamorous but very influential Archipelago (2010), play an equally critical role in annotating the combustible dysfunctionalities in the players’ relationships and not only with Lane’s new man, but also with Hawkes’ newly found daughter, Penelope, a tagger-along played with a searing efficacy by Dakota Johnson, who’s sultry sexually charged character loiters menacingly throughout.
This is as multi-layered and delicious a film as is likely to come out of Italy. It bears the hallmarks of a classic, as much as of Italian westerns, or as of the ancient Roman and Greek theatre. The director has a deep and intimate appreciation of the Italian South and its islands, a passion he has shared here unsparingly like an Italian family lunch. The food and fiesta as well as the rocky sexy slopes of Pantelleria are heaped into this sexually charged Bacchanalian bake off.
And to cap it off, a soundtrack to underscore its Rock N Roll excess DNA featuring the Rolling Stones and St. Vincent to name a few. A Bigger Splash certainly makes a sharp, vibrant, at times disturbing reflection on excess, vulnerability, possessiveness and all those other human fallibilities that, were they scalding hot spices on pizza, you would probably call them Diavola (bedeviled).