So a nymphet, a mute rock star, an extrovert, and a depressive go out for a walk…
Bigger Splash **
Four damaged souls in various stages of recovery — filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) from depression and booze, rock star Marianne (Tilda Swinton) from damaged vocal cords, nymphet Penelope (Dakota Johnson) from fatherlessness, and record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes) from, well, his life up to now — meet up at an island retreat. Actually, it’s more of an invasion: Harry crashes into Paul and Marianne’s sedate, satisfied world, bringing newly discovered Penelope and a specific (if unspoken) agenda. He very much embodies the past that won’t be ignored, and Fiennes dominates the screen, his formidable costars, and the even more formidable Mediterranean scenery as a man both possessed and obsessed. (It’s the sort of performance that gets called "impossible to look away from," in part because it can make you want to look away.) Perhaps as a result, the story tends to sag when he’s not around, no matter how intriguing the drama or how dramatic the intrigue. Still, director Luca Guadagnino ably depicts the seductive charm of a broken world without overplaying either aspect — a neat trick.
A Bigger Splash tells the story of Paul and Marianne — he’s a filmmaker recovering from a suicide attempt, she’s a rock star recovering from damaged vocal chords — and their quasi-reluctant hosting of old friend/old flame Harry and his newly discovered daughter Penelope at their Mediterranean retreat.
Matthew Lickona: Watching A Bigger Splash, I was reminded of last year’s Ex Machina, in terms of how important the setting and the house were to the overall shape and feel of the film.
Luca Guadagnino: When I was approached by Studio Canal about the idea of remaking this French movie called La Piscine — a movie set in the French Riviera about people lounging by the pool and the intertwining of jealousy and betrayal — I immediately felt that the core of the movie, the thing that was interesting to me, was desire. Desire between people, and how this force unleashes itself. In order to make the image of desire powerful and confrontable in reality, I had the intuition that the movie should be set on an island that I knew because I had been there when I was a teenager: Pantelleria. I had strong memories of that place: the landscape was fierce, with very untamable winds. From a naturalistic point of view, there was something very odd, very strong about it. I chose it because I wanted a fixed character that could challenge the quartet. They could afford to be above everybody else on the island, and yet the island was shaking them, shocking them with its fierceness and oddness, and also with the unpredictability and complication of its inhabitants, both those who lived there and the refugees who were passing through to find a new way of living. It was a great place to bring to the screen a number of contradictions and discomforts for the characters.
A Bigger Splash
ML: Ralph Fiennes gives such an energetic, almost overwhelming performance as Harry. I’m always curious about the way a director handles that. Could you talk about the scene where he dances and sings along to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”?
LG: Harry is a figure who cannot move away from his past. In a way, he’s frozen in the amber of the good old days of rock ’n’ roll. When he’s in public, he needs to show off a sense of constant enjoyment. And when he dances to “Emotional Rescue,” he’s claiming — with the words and the movement of his body — that Marianne should come back to him, and that he should be able to get what he wants. But at the same time, there’s a deep sadness in the performance, and Ralph pulls off, in a magnificent way, the contraction between the electricity of the rock ’n’ roll coming through his body and yet the inadvertent melancholy coming off him as well. Ralph proposed that we collaborate with the choreographer Anne Yet, who had a great desire to unleash that dance instead of having Ralph Mickey Mouse it. It was about letting him be completely unrestrained, and you see that in the movie.
ML: Talk about establishing the tenor of the relationships between the characters at the outset.
LG: Well, you can exploit the screen; you have the power of visuals. Not just the faces of the actors, but the behavior of the bodies, and the way those bodies collide. You see that from the beginning with Paul and Marianne: their routine, their lazy hours strolling about the island. But you also have these amazing actors who have the wiseness and the experience to create something that happened before the actual movie. You have a sense of the story beyond what is in the present, which I like very much.
ML: Speaking of bodies, decadence enters the film through feckless youth and an aging dinosaur banging up against this stable, almost sedate couple. Do you think the film has a moral vision in that regard?
LG: The movie doesn’t want to shy away from behavior that can lead us toward ethical failures. I do think the movie is about that. But I don’t know if I’m allowed as a filmmaker to really get into the meaning of my movies, because I think that should be in the eyes of the audience.
ML: I see a lot of fight scenes — I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that there’s a fight in this film. And nowadays, fight choreography is so elaborate in so many films. Here, you sort of went to the other extreme. There’s minimal motion, and yet you get a sense of the tremendous struggle.
LG: The fight was an extremely important piece. I wanted to let it play in real time, and to let the audience be with the fight. I think that often in cinema, you are distracted from the fight by the effects. You have editorial effects, sound effects, lensing effects...they do so much to keep you from focusing on the actual struggle that happens in a fight. I hope that I will make a big action movie in the future; it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. But if I do, I will always ask myself the question, “What happens when these bodies clash?” A classic scene in terms of the way action is displayed in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy: the fight between one man and 40 opponents. There are no cuts. It’s all about letting you look at the fight and fully feel what happens. I’m interested in an experience that lets the audience feel what the characters can feel in the moment.