Its title half-inched from Hockney, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash leaps off the screen at this year’s London Film Festival, displaying pop art vivacity from its opening moments, in which Tilda Swinton, playing rock star Marianne Lane, spits in the wings, before taking to the stage in front of a roaring, adoring crowd. A remake of Jacques Deray and Jean-Claude Carrière’s 1969 La Piscine, Guadagnino’s latest is, as its opening images suggest, a cruder, funnier, more raucous affair than was his excellent, Visconti-referencing breakthrough I Am Love (2009). (The film that Guadagnino made in between these two – a superb doc on Bernardo Bertolucci – was sadly under-seen.)
Here the Italian auteur follows in the recent footsteps of compatriots Mateo Garrone (with Tale of Tales) and Paolo Sorrentino (with Youth) by delivering a starry English-language film, making the Sicilian island of Pantelleria the setting for this delicious take on the essential amorality of glamorous, idling foreigners.
Having lost her voice, Marianne is now recuperating with her younger lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a filmmaker and ex-alcoholic, on Pantelleria, with the pair’s delightfully hermetic sex-and-sunbathing existence quickly sketched in some steamy early scenes. The couple’s idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Harry Hawks (Ralph Fiennes), a manic music producer (and Marianne’s ex) who’s brought along his petulant daughter Penelope (the shrewd Dakota Johnson), with whom he’s only recently reunited. It’s not long before erotic tensions start simmering among the quartet. And when a murder happens how, um, faithful will Marianne prove? And to whom?
As with Sorrentino and Garrone’s recent works, A Bigger Splash is rather unruly, but – despite the hard time that Italian critics have given the film – I found it to be blissfully entertaining for all that. Working with the great DP Yorick Le Saux, Guadagnino employs a barrage of stylistic tricks and surprises – restless camerawork, crash zooms, musical interludes, blithe full-frontals – to give this sunny noir maximum expressionist impact.
At some level, A Bigger Splash is all about its actors’ bodies: whether leaping into swimming pools, sprawling on sun-loungers, or eyeing each other over meals. An equal-opportunity fetishiser of the Ozon school, Guadagnino creates a hot, horny atmosphere that’s hard to resist. It’s no surprise to find Johnson and Schoenaerts stripping off (if it weren’t for his stolid turn in Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd one might think that Schoenaerts was contractually obliged to do so), but Fiennes’s game approach to the nudity is as liberating as it is hilarious. After all that wonderfully moody brooding he used to do, Fiennes is an actor who’s loosened up considerably on screen and stage as he’s aged. Here he gives the picture’s standout performance, and his boogieing to a Rolling Stones number is worth the price of admission alone, even if the sequence goes on a shade or two too long, an example of Guadagnino’s tendency to let his indulgences get the better of him.
In a weird way, though, Fiennes’s foul-mouthed, hedonistic Harry also provides the film with its social and historical conscience. It’s this character who recalls the Allied bombing of Pantelleria, and the fact that “slaves were traded here”, leading him to declare “I hate this island.” Indeed, as it progresses, A Bigger Splash reveals itself to be a film of some political bite, alluding to the current migrant crisis in a way that’s unexpected but extremely judicious. (“Europe’s a grave,” muses Harry as he urinates against a head-stone.) Perhaps Italian critics who’ve trashed the film have taken (justifiable) exception to the way in which the Pantelleria locals are portrayed: they include a maid who mangles her attempts at English translation, and a very stupid police inspector.
A Bigger Splash isn’t without some shortcomings, then, but the movie is never dull, and I found it to be surprisingly substantial. At the climax, as the closeness of the gorgeous couple turns chilling, Guadagnino heralds the shift with a thrilling torrential downpour. But there’s the strong suggestion that it will take more than rainwater to wash these characters clean.