A Bigger Splash
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue

Produced by Michael Costigan, Luca Guadagnino, and Sonya Lunsford; directed by Luca Guadagnino; screenplay by David Kajganich, based on the film La Piscine, directed by Jacques Deray, written by Deray and Jean-Claude Carrière; cinematography by Yorick Le Saux; edited by Walter Fasano; production design by Maria Djurkovic; starring Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tilda Swinton, and Dakota Johnson. Color, 124 min. A Fox Searchlight release.

The swimming pool is a treacherous place in the cinema of Luca Guadagnino. In Melissa P. (2005), the predatory host of a teen party emerges from the pool to begin a relationship of one-on-one and group sexual humiliation and abuse of the fifteen-year-old heroine, who can’t swim. In his breakout film, I Am Love (2010), the scion of an impossibly rich industrial family confronts the mother who has betrayed him with his business partner, friend, and unacknowledged love—a scuffle that ends in his accidental death in the pool.

Only the wealthy can afford homes with swimming pools, so it has become a convenient site for Guadagnino to play out his recurrent themes—the material abundance and spiritual poverty of the megarich; the tensions and power struggles between genders and generations; the conflict between familial and social expectation; and the urge toward self-actualization. It is no surprise, therefore, that in A Bigger Splash Guadagnino has taken this sideshow and put it center stage.

A Bigger Splash remakes a Franco-Italian all-star thriller from 1969, Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (The Swimming Pool). The fact that Guadagnino is sick of talking about his film’s relationship to its source suggests that he has not transcended this almost forgotten time capsule as decisively as he had hoped. La Piscine oozes prestige of the commercial and art-house varieties. It showcases four of the biggest names in the European public sphere of the day—one-time Golden Couple and tabloid fodder Alain Delon and Romy Schneider, New Wave star Maurice Ronet, and Jane Birkin, just before her notorious duet with Serge Gainsbourg, Je t’aime…moi non plus.” Further, it was co-written by Buñuel’s collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière and scored by one of the most distinctive composers of the Sixties—Michel Legrand—in a snakey bossa nova style that perfectly matches the modish malice of the film’s setup. Even more piquantly, it was during the production of La Piscine that Delon’s bodyguard was murdered, precipitating the Markovic Affair, a scandal that involved both the French underworld and then-President Georges Pompidou.

Jean-Paul/Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), Marianne (Tilda Swinton), Penelope (Dakota Johnson) and Harry (Ralph Fiennes) in A Bigger Splash

The plots of each film are broadly similar. Jean-Paul/Paul (Delon/Matthias Schoenaerts) and Marianne (Schneider/Tilda Swinton) are lovers staying in the enviable Mediterranean hideaway of absent friends—La Piscine is set on the French Riviera, Splash on the island of Pantelleria in the Strait of Sicily. Jean-Paul/Paul is nursing a personal disappointment that is only gradually revealed. This apparent idyll is disturbed by the arrival of the noisy Harry (Ronet/Ralph Fiennes), former lover of Marianne and friend of Jean-Paul/Paul who has brought Penelope (Birkin/Dakota Johnson), a newly discovered daughter, in tow. So begins a dark psychodrama in the blazing southern sun, with the ingredients of star nudity, partner swapping, intimations of incest, violent death, and a botched police investigation flopped on a pan set to simmer.

La Piscine should have been directed by Claude Chabrol. Its blackly comic situation is dissipated by Deray’s inability to pace, his persnickety framing, and his general discomfort with the script—he is happier with the terse testosterone of crime narratives like Borsalino (1970) and Flic Story (1975). This is material that needs to be grabbed by the hair and run with, as Guadagnino does and then some. Nevertheless, partly because of Carrière’s sly plotting, La Piscine is by far the more interesting of the two films. La Piscine keeps faith with the central site of the swimming pool—by obeying the unities of time and space, the film develops a claustrophobic atmosphere and inevitability that is mostly lost in A Bigger Splash. Deray’s distanced long takes—cooling the heat they record—are replaced by Guadagnino’s would-be exhibitionist style; the narrative of A Bigger Splash hops tiresomely between the present drama and multiple “explanatory” flashbacks.

The relationships in the later film have been made conventional by an excess of backstory and psychological plausibility. In La Piscine, Jean-Paul is some sort of failed writer; it is not particularly clear what the successful Harry and Marianne are. Guadagnino’s threesome includes a stadium-filling rock star (at different points an approximation of David Bowie, Chrissie Hynde, Joan Jett, Annie Lennox, and Bonnie Tyler), her former producer, and her lover, who is a photographer and documentary filmmaker. All of this results in context that does not add much to the core dynamics, turning it into a predictable ménage à quatre. The relationship of Delon and Schneider constantly surprises: though clearly well-off and seemingly untied to any socioeconomic reality, the fact that their living arrangements depend on the generosity of a friend adds an instability and unpredictability to the setup that spills over into—and in a real sense precipitates—the narrative. This couple does not seem to like each other very much, their affair sparked by a love-hate, (literally) sadomasochistic, sexually fulfilling but emotionally draining charge. Swinton and Schoenaerts, by contrast, are a genuinely happy, loving couple whose yearning embourgeoisement is stomped on by Fiennes’s childish, invigorating, and radically selfish antics… 

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Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 3