Friday 12 February 2016

The deep end: "A Bigger Splash"

There's been much handwringing in certain quarters of late over the way arthouse takings are being compromised by the tendency among leading overseas directors to move into non-subtitled, English-language production: this, apparently, is where globalisation gets us. Of all the festival-friendly career moves the past few months have thrown up - Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster, Sorrentino's Youth - A Bigger Splash, being the Italian director Luca Guadagnino's long-awaited follow-up to 2009's I Am Love, emerges as by far the most enjoyable and best sustained. A loose reworking of Jacques Deray's cult 1969 item La Piscine, it seizes upon the "unwanted visitor" trope central to so many thrillers over the years - a trope that arguably dates back to the serpent's entry in the Garden of Eden - while insistently pursuing its own pleasure principle. Here is a film that cocks an eyebrow, tips you the wink, and suggests - as perhaps only a director raised on the Continent could - that there are more exciting things to do with your hands than wringing them.

Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have shifted events several degrees south, to the kind of paradisiacal Italian island where even one as naturally pale as Tilda Swinton might avail themselves of a healthy tan. Her Marianne is a pop star who's retreated here while she recovers from an operation on her vocal chords; her days are spent either sunning herself by the pool, or splashing about within it alongside her hunky filmmaker lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). This blissful time-out will, however, be interrupted by an old acquaintance: the overbearing Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a drug-fuelled music-biz blusterer who formerly dated Marianne and later introduced his hosts to one another. As Marianne is without a voice, she can't say no when he shows up on her doorstep, and she hasn't had the advance notice to run further into the hills; instead, she reluctantly takes him in, along with his unannounced plus one Penelope (Dakota Johnson), a twentysomething waif whom the gallivanting Harry has only just discovered is his daughter.

His houseguests installed, Guadagnino settles back to watch the snakes emerging from the grass to slither across the terrace, and to observe his principals first striking sparks, then becoming hot and bothered, and finally overheating. The funny thing is, A Bigger Splash is in no particular hurry to get to this meltdown; for much of its duration, the dramatic temperature is kept to a low, carefully controlled simmer. What you notice first of all is how the warmth relaxes Fiennes to the point where he's prepared to embody the prize prat absolutely. We've seen flickers of Funny Fiennes before, most notably with his Leonard Rossiter-ish turn in 2010's Cemetery Junction, most recently in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Guadagnino allows the actor to roll up, flaunt his dadbod, and commandeer whole stretches of the picture: one of A Bigger Splash's pleasures lies in watching The Artist Formerly Known As Voldemort (and currently to be seen on stage as Ibsen's The Master Builder) pulling secondhand Jagger moves to "Emotional Rescue" and gurning around the karaoke machine.

Yet everybody here appears newly refreshed, alert, open to the elements; between them, this quartet of performers suggest the intimacy of not just old pals, but people who've known one another's bodies - or the growing intimacy of those who might want to know one another's bodies. Yorick Le Saux's antsy camera resists any listlessness, constantly caressing the actors' faces and forms, setting us to look at them head-on, keeping an eye out at all times for the sexual possibilities that follow from lounging about all day with your top off. At two hours, the film risks seeming a bit too relaxed for its own good - and perhaps we don't really need three separate scenes of Harry plunging either fully clothed or balls-out naked into the pool to establish the character's impulsive nature. Yet the pacing allows us to better feel the space between these people, the breeze blowing through their quarters (not a euphemism), the subtle shifts within their relationships; it transforms what could have been a rather arid or academic, even theatrical fourhander into something fluid, organic, unpredictable.

Kajganich may have set all these situations up on paper, but it needed Guadagnino to pull them out into the light of day and test them: his methods are most apparent in the insertion of one subtle, very shrewd subplot involving the African migrants seen flocking to this island, a development that insures the film against any accusations it might merely be a paean to white leisure-class privilege. (In this respect, it's a progression on the more insular I Am Love.) I suspect some observers are going to be thrown by the unexpected data offered up by the final two reels, when this bohemian bubble gets punctured, the pool is violently drained, and the heavens open. Yet the result is a rare remake that keeps the viewer guessing right up until its final moments. In its wryly quizzical fascination with the mysteries of human relationships - how we initiate them, and how we contrive to over-complicate them, and thereby fuck them up - A Bigger Splash resembles an Antonioni movie made by a filmmaker whose internal compass defaults towards joy and wonder, not pessimism or despair.

A Bigger Splash opens in selected cinemas from today. 

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