I Am Love (2010) director Luca Guadagnino returns to the Venice Lido with A Bigger Splash (2015), his starry remake of the classic Jacques Deray film La Piscine (1969). Regular collaborator Tilda Swinton plays Marianna Lane, a rock star who has achieved the heights of world-renowned fame but is now in retreat from the pressures of show business on the small Italian island of Pantelleria while she recovers from a throat operation that has rendered her speechless. Together with her documentarian boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), himself a recovering alcoholic, she lounges about naked, has lots of loving sex and soaks up the Mediterranean sun.
That is until the arrival of ex-producer and old flame Henry (Ralph Fiennes), who lands on the island with his estranged daughter Pen (Dakota Johnson). The gregarious Henry is a non-stop chatterbox full of schemes, anecdotes and life, who manages to avoid causing too much offence by simply rushing on at such a velocity he rarely hits the ground. Whether he’s addressing a table at a packed restaurant, singing karaoke in a packed bar or riffing on his time with The Rolling Stones, Henry is the life and soul of the party while the rest look on with bemusement and increasingly, on the part of his old friend Paul, irritation. Henry’s daughter hangs around the swimming pool wearing very little and does her best to show the adults how singly unimpressed she is by their former glories. She also has her eyes set on the initially indifferent Paul.
With its glorious locations (photographed with suitable gorgeousness by Yorick Le Saux) and comic tone, A Bigger Splash spends the first hour as a kind of ‘weekend in the country’ comedy. Flashbacks show a former life of globetrotting, recording sessions and cocaine-fuelled parties. We find out Henry was initially Marianne’s boyfriend and that he introduced Paul to her as a way of getting out of the relationship, a move he now deeply regrets. We also learn that Paul tried to commit suicide and that Marianne has been nursing him back to mental health. This is all done with a relaxed pace alongside ample shots of food being prepared and enjoyed, as well as sun, sea and sand.
Guadagnino plays around with his shots, making them nakedly, wittily literal. The light turns to a muted colour when Paul puts on his sunglasses; when Henry phones to say he’s arriving on a plane a shadow of the jet passes over his hosts-to-be instantaneously; and there’s a real-life snake on the patio to go with those in the grass. The nervousness and anxieties of the main characters are brought out by fidgety editing, snap zooms and frequent trick shots. With sexual tensions rising as Paul finds himself increasingly attracted to Pen – and Marianne and Henry shopping for groceries and fresh ricotta, rediscovering their own mutual attraction – something has to give. Either everyone is going to have sex, everyone is going to kill each other, or some combination of the two. Once the crisis – no spoilers here – is reached, a little of the air goes out of the mattress and the last twenty minutes become the hangover, the come down, the morning after.
These people initially seem so likeable and yet when it comes down to it, they are blandly uninterested in anything but maintaining their own position and comfort. The migrants coming to shore on the island are seen merely as an item of news in the background, or a threat, or a convenient scapegoat. In this moral vacuum of wealthy-entitled anxiety there’s something of L’Avventura (1960), albeit Guadgnino’s frenetic wit is a million miles and a couple of lines of coke away from Antonioni’s austere enigma. The acting throughout is superb, with Swinton sitting back and watching with obvious pleasure as Fiennes gnaws up the scenery and beach furniture with genuine vim. Schoenaerts once again proves himself a charismatic and compelling actor alongside the excellent Johnson. Whether A Bigger Splash will make one compared to arthouse favourite I Am Love is to be seen, but it’s a blackly funny comedy complete with a Best Actor-worthy Fiennes.
The 72nd Venice Film Festival takes place from 2-12 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.