PSA A Bigger Splash is on Netflix. I remember how alluring the ads were upon its release. But I was too young to see it then and sadly never got to before yesterday. It’s a very daring film for its time, very open about David Hockney’s break-up with Peter Schlesinger, lots of nudity, awkward sex, art-making, parties, even a drag Ms. World contest; a force field evoking the complex emotions that are enacted between that which is said and that which is felt. It’s full of sadness and longing, lots of young men in their prime frolicking together — eros made flesh — and how break-ups affect many more people than those directly involved. It’s also an essay film on a landmark painting, the creation of which, results in the emotional exorcism Hockney needs to keep on keeping on. I wish I’d seen it when younger.
Ralph Fiennes is the worst dancer in the history of the movies and demonstrates an admirable lack of vanity in showing it off at every opportunity in A Bigger Splash: he’s very endearing. The film itself is an old-fashioned ‘art-house’ movie that I nonetheless liked very much.
Tilda Swinton plays Mariane Lane, a Bowie-esque rock singer who’s lost her voice. She’s recuperating in an Italian Eden with her partner of six years, Paul de Smedt (Mathias Schoenaerts), a former alcoholic, now on the mend. They’re enshrouded in a cocoon of love and sex, sun and contentment, when snakes sidle into Eden in the form of Harry Hawkes (Raph Fiennes), Mariane’s producer and former lover, and the grown-up daughter Hawkes has only recently been made aware of, Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson).
As is to be expected from the director of I Am Love, A Bigger Splash is about love and it offers a nicely complicated view of it. Hawkes is out to woo Mariane away from Paul. Mariane is contented with Paul but still has feelings for Harry. Harry could happily fuck any of them. Penelope is a temptation not only to Paul but to her own father. Paul and Harry have a deep friendship but might yet fight to kill.
The film evokes quite a lot of film classics, some of the settings and existential dilemmas are borrowed from Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse (1958) and Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960). The basic plot is a take on Jacque Deray’s La Piscine (1969), though neither Swinton, Johnson nor Schoenaerts quite convey the horny sizzle that Romy Schneider, Jane Birkin and Alain Delon were able to evoke there for Deray. I am also reminded of the 1973 documentary Jacques Hazan made of Hockney and named after his famous painting, the original A Bigger Splash, and which I mainly remember from seeing the poster as a tween and finding it so alluring and forbidden. This the film doesn’t quite achieve either, despite all the nudity.
This A Bigger Splash is about love, but also about existential despair amongst the rich as they eat freshly-made ricotta and frolic naked by day on the Mediterranean and by night by their own handy piscine to take full advantage of the moonlight. Whilst the rich try to find the right hillside restaurant known only to locals, masses of refugees wash onto the shores, many dead; those alive get to be imprisoned; those not imprisoned get to meander through the hills in search of food and shelter as they inadvertently terrify the rich. Money and celebrity win out but the rich and famous themselves are shown to be not without feelings nor immune to tragedy.
All the actors are great for different reasons: Fiennes energises the film with his good nature, his self-knowledge and his lack of vanity each time he steps into the scene. Swinton is particularly beautiful here: in some shots she looks like a very young Kate Hepburn, in other like Bowie, in others like ageing Eurotrah; she barely speaks throughout and mimes a great performance. Schonaerts has a marvellous confession scene at the end where we see Paul break down and confess to Mariane and where tears seem to pour out of his skin. Johnson is a marvellously knowing Lolita.
A Bigger Splash is ambiguous, symbolic, it’s very interesting in how it narrates time, and it offers an interesting critique of contemporary European culture. It’s a film that well fits Pauline Kael’s sneering description of some sixties art movies as a ‘Come-dressed-as-the sick-soul-of-Europe-parties’. I liked it very much.