“A Bigger Splash”
During June – the month of Pride, LGBT-and-otherwise – this blog is meant to be devoted to the discussion of queer cinema, though nearly halfway through the month I’ve not published a single post on a film featuring a queer character. This post, alas, continues this evading pattern, containing my reaction to the new genre hybrid work now playing at Cinema Nouveau, A Bigger Splash, which features four promiscuous (thought heterosexually so) and wilful Anglophone figures, on an uneasy holiday on some small Italian island halfway between the mainland and Africa. And yet I feel as though the film could count in some way as being the first queer film of the month, because its tone – emotionally restive, and simultaneously sensual – its sensibility – dissolute and Eurocentric – and its substance – sexual mischief, shifting romantic allegiances, artists and their personal lives, and a tangle of friendships and partnerships and rivalries – all call to mind what one might call the orthodoxy of contemporary queer cinema, and are fleshed out copiously with the supple, shimmering flesh of its four stars, three of them staples of the independent cinema, and the fourth freshly powdered and re-strapped after appearing on our screens in the largest BDSM romantic fantasy adaptation of all time. Hardly the mode of straight cinema that may be endorsed by, say, Focus on the Family.
Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a rock star, accompanied on her island holiday by her boyfriend of six years, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a photographer. They’re dropped in on unexpectedly by an old friend, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who brings along a hitherto unknown-of daughter, named Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Harry is a nightmare of zealous back-slapping bonhomie, virtually vomiting words from his arrival until his departure; at one point he mentions the literal translation of the Italian term for someone with verbal diarrhoea: “one who shits sentences,” but fails to connect it to himself. This is neatly, soothingly counterbalanced by Marianne’s muteness, in the wake of a serious ailment and subsequent surgery on her voice. She points out what she wants, and waves her arms in protest for things she doesn’t want, and Paul tenderly takes care of her every need. The two of them have developed a far more nuanced system of communication, and their quick, telling glances at one another and minute, spontaneous touches and other signals reach a vulnerable intensity, rivalling and often surpassing in exuberance Harry’s incessant monologues. The director, Luca Gaudagnino, permits us to see and understand as much as Paul does of what Marianne has to say, lending Swinton’s performance a most elegant and vital grace.
Harry, we learn, used to be in a similar long term relationship with Marianne. Deft intermittent flashbacks fill us in on the romantic history of the group; while Harry was Marianne’s lover as well as her manager, he met Paul, who was then shooting a documentary in which Harry was interviewed. Harry introduced Paul to Marianne, who at the time, along with Harry, was a regular user of cocaine, and somewhere along the way she gave up both harmful substances and her romance with her manager, and took up with Paul. In a close confrontation with Harry on the island, she managers a croaking whisper to inform him of something important: “I will always be grateful to you for Paul.” Since moving in with Marianne, Paul attempted suicide by violently crashing his car. He no longer drinks, and the couple has drawn a veil over that interlude, but, as must happen when longtime, brazen, subliminally rival friends arrive in arthouse dramas, the topic is brought up, and never quite successfully subdued again. Penelope broaches it even more presumptuously one evening, while she and Paul are alone at a lookout point high above the shore, watching the sun set over the distant mainland of Tunisia. While Paul is clearly bothered, it forms part of a broader conversation edging towards an erotic proposition on Penelope’s part, which doesn’t disinterest him entirely. At first, this seems both unfortunate and absurd, with Paul and Marianne being so clearly devoted to one another, she having taken care of him in his time of abject desperation, and he caring for her as her whole career – almost her whole life – is on hold while her voice recovers. But then we realise that Harry has come not only for warm company and the Mediterranean climate, but to try win back his lost lover. And so begins a small but messy entanglement of suggestions and rejections, indiscretions and caution, regretful memories and regretful occurrences.
Not least unsettling of all of this is the obvious sexual allure of Penelope, even to Harry, who is known to be up for all kinds of fun. While the subject of incest is thankfully not fully embarked upon in the film, the aftertaste of the innuendo lingers each time we arrive back at the sight of her, first in her bikini and later quite shamelessly out of it, bathing in the Italian sunshine. It hardly seemed possible while watching Fifty Shades of Grey last year to see any more of Dakota Johnson on film than we did, but evidently the prospect of amorous congress with Schoenaerts brings out a boldness in people, and she acquiesces to fill in audiences on any gaps there may be in our knowledge of her anatomy. Far from criticising her, this blogger puts the case that we should laud and salute her as an honorary gay icon, graciously delivering unto us the sights of a topless Justin Timberlake in 2010, a topless Jamie Dornan in 2015, and a topless Matthias Schoenaerts in 2016. Who can say what summits of visual delights the future of her career holds in store for us? Who can say how many men’s (and, yes, I suppose women’s, too) exhilarating fantasies and fulfillments will be due to her when she reaches cinematic maturity?
The plot of A Bigger Splash is a strange creation. My viewing companion remarked that it makes the story into two films in one, with a bizarre and unfortunate twist that flings us into the last third. No doubt Gaudagnino and his writers, David Kajnagich and Alain Page, have much to say of the significance of plot turns and resolutions, but I can’t quite settle on what that may be. What’s more, I’m hardly interested; the thrills of A Bigger Splash exist off the page, and outside of its structured form. The pleasures and surprises, approaching ecstasy in a few places, are sensual rather than intellectual. The excessive and eventually unwelcome nudity of Fiennes aside, Guadagnino and his director of photography, Yorick Le Saux, yield a swirl of images revealing and delighting in the tremulous tactility of the actors’ skin and flesh, alternately pale and golden. The quiver of erotic possibility where it isn’t supposed to be is alive and dangerous, and the reveling in other sensual gratifications is hardly shied away from nor chastised by the film. We’re regaled with shots of ricotta, still warm, being spooned into bowls and into Marianne’s mouth, and of a fish stuffed with chillies and herbs (Harry, needless to say, is an unrestrained cook). There’s an enchanting sequence in which the characters’ quiet relaxation in a sitting room is interrupted by Harry, who wishes to awaken their dormant Apollon strains with tales of his days working with the Rolling Stones, accompanied by tracks from their vinyl albums that Marianne owns. Thus begins the spectacle of a frenzied dance to the band’s “Emotional Rescue,” in which Harry, unable to keep his zeal indoors, moves his delirium of flailing limbs onto the roof, and continues beneath the blazing sun. Fiennes is clearly in full play mode here, and delivers the most outwardly animated performance in the film, outdoing the theatricality of even his hellish Lord Voldemort.