Luca Guadagnino’s ‘A Bigger Splash’

Making waves from France to Sicily

Just in time for summer’s pool openings, we have the perfect, provocative heat-seeking film, A Bigger Splash. What could be cooler than spending some time in Pantelleria, an island off the coast of Sicily, in the company of two gorgeous women (Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson) and two equally alluring men (Matthias Schoenaerts and Ralph Fiennes)?

A Bigger Splash, with Schoenaerts, Swinton, Johnson, and Fiennes. (Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight films)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, who was born in Palermo, and written by David Kajganich and Alain Page, A Bigger Splash (2015) is a remake of La Piscine (1969) a French film by Jacques Deray. On the surface the two films are very similar. A couple, Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are vacationing poolside in a beautiful villa, when a pair of interlopers, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a father, and his newly-discovered daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson) arrived uninvited to threaten the peace. Harry is Marianne’s ex-lover, while Penelope is a seductress in disguise.

Swimmingly gorgeous

Aside from the locale, which, in the original is the French Riviera, the biggest difference between the two films is their tone. A Bigger Splash is a loud romp, despite the seriousness of its underlying themes (it feels somewhat like an afterthought): while summer people play by the pool, refugees die and escape in the sea. Ralph Fiennes, in the funniest performance of his career, is like a perfect summer storm, whether dancing to music by the Stones, crashing parties and cars, or seducing Marianne. Even the film’s denouement is markedly more serious in La Piscine; Deray’s French detective wears a coat and tie, while Guadagnino seems to relish poking fun at the Italian carabinieri, who is more interested in getting a rock star’s autograph than solving a crime.

Other significant differences arise from the casting choices. Tilda Swinton is angular in her androgyny, dramatic and silent (Marianne is healing from throat surgery), while Romy Schneider was all femininity, soft, curvaceous and chatty. Growing up in Spain, I remember this actress from her role as the title character in Ernst Marischka’s Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress. She was the epitome of female beauty, her royalty an attractive distraction from the political direness of Franco’s regime. Despite that sexiness, in La Piscine Marianne looks regal wearing a full-length gown, with her hair done up in a classic French twist. In both films, whatever they are wearing, the camera often focuses in the long, sculptured backs of the female protagonists.

Add heat, lust, beauty, stir

Penelope may have the most surprising character development. As played by Dakota Johnson (Jane Birkin appeared in the original), she is transformed from a coy and aloof young girl at the beginning to a troubled young woman, who is capable of real feelings and suffering at the end of the film.

A Bigger Splash (1967) is also the title of a famous painting by David Hockney, created while he was teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. The director Jack Hazan also used that title in 1975 for his biopic of the artist. Hockney’s image is notable for its stillness; other than the splash in the pool, there are no signs of life or movement in his canvas. Nothing could be further from the situation in Guadagnino’s film. Even the weather, with its dry heat, ocean breezes, mysterious fog and the summer rain, is unpredictable. The lovers may be together still, but their situation will certainly change when Marianne recovers her voice and, who knows, perhaps she won’t be able to keep the secret she shares with Paul. A bigger splash can be made over and over; all that is needed is the summer heat, some lust and some beautiful people around a pool.

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