This is not a review. This is a long-form, analytical essay and therefore necessarily contains plot spoilers. In addition, your understanding of many of the ideas I explore here will probably be enhanced by familiarity with the film.
Ever since Emily Dickinson wrote that “The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care,” this adage has been used to reason that most irrational of human responses, desire.
Desire is a wonderful thing. Without it, we might never be compelled to move forward, to pursue pleasure or change our lives. Desire doesn’t always make sense. It has the power to create beautiful things. But it’s also capable of demolishing them. Desire has a dark, dangerous side. It may take on a life of its own, consuming, disorienting, even disfiguring our engagement with the world and with the object we hunger for. The intense longing that desire brings can often make us feel we have no control over the behaviour that arises from it.
The heart wants what it wants and yet each action that desire produces has an impact that extends beyond the heart; an effect not only for the individual who enacts it, but often also for the society that encapsulates them. Every action has a reaction. Every action has consequences that ripple outwards to make a bigger splash in the wider world.
This is certainly true of the way desire manifests in Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 film I Am Love. Here, Tilda Swinton is Emma Recchi, a mother of three adult children, living in the upper-crust of Milanese society, whose heart yearns for Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a young chef, and the new friend of her oldest son, Edo (Flavio Parenti). Emma obeys her desire. She follows it and Antonio into the fire. This journey is lusty and more – a heady, sensory awakening that takes her outside her wintry, mausoleum-like home into the succulent spring and fertile natural world.
In I Am Love desire is freedom – it liberates Emma from the stifling obligation of the prominent family she (as a Russian émigré) has married into. But it also leaves disorder in the space she escapes. Guadagnino doesn’t let his camera linger on the damage left behind as she runs out the front door towards Antonio. Instead, we luxuriate in the bliss of their coupling, in an imagined future where they float together in a dreamlike grotto, desperately entwined. Our focus is firmly set on the individual change that desire has provoked in Emma’s life, nothing else – no other perspective matters.
Overwhelmingly a force for personal liberation in I Am Love, desire has more destructive tendencies when unleashed within Guadagnino’s new film, A Bigger Splash.
Here, Swinton is Marianne Lane. She’s a rock star (with more than just a passing similitude to David Bowie) and when we meet her – lying naked, reading James Agee’s A Death in the Family, poolside – she’s recovering from throat surgery on the rugged Mediterranean island of Pantelleria, with her boyfriend of six years, Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). Marianne is resting her voice so barely talks. The film’s opening scenes – lazing under the sun by the pool, languorously making love, and bathing in the sulphuric mud at Lake Venere, all unfold in complete silence.
Then a ringing cell phone intrudes. It’s Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s extroverted former record producer and lover, calling from the plane. He’s about to appear on the island, uninvited, and like the snakes that regularly appear, unwelcome. He talks and talks and talks. Paul can’t get a word in to explain that now might not be the best time for a visit. Harry’s disembodied voice ranting at hyperspeed is a bounteous introduction to a man who will enter this peaceful space and unsettle it.
Fiennes sizzles in A Bigger Splash, as many (including me) have already noted, putting in a performance as Harry unlike anything we’ve ever seen from him before. It’s very special work – compulsively watchable for its relentless physical energy. Like the dry Sirocco wind, Harry blows in and whips up a tornado of truth-bombs and sexual provocations that push the holiday atmosphere to the edge of leisure. There is train wreck potential here – you feel it’s going to end badly for Harry, yet you can’t look away.
Does Harry, who Marianne tells us, “doesn’t believe in limits,” represent the consequences of desire unchecked? Harry hasn’t come to Pantelleria, as he mocks, to taste the island’s famed capers. He’s come to willfully disrupt Marianne and Paul’s idyll, flamed by a scorching desire for Marianne – and the rock-and roll-life they shared – that hasn’t flickered out. Harry wants her back; we see it in every intense look he sends her way. His fervent sexual jealousy makes him possessive and intent on destruction.
Harry’s surprise visit is made all the more surprising by the presence of a young woman, Penelope (a wonderfully knowing Dakota Johnson), who he introduces as his newly discovered daughter. She’s the forbidden fruit that Harry throws into the ring, a shadowy participant in the psychosexual games that transpire, and there’s a tangible, prickly push-and-pull at play between them all.
Harry begins pushing at the boundaries of Marianne and Paul’s relationship from the moment he steps off the plane. He dictates where they will eat dinner, fills their empty fridge, and invites his friends over to hang out, making himself simultaneously useful and obnoxious. It’s impossible to keep him at the “safe distance” they try to institute and he floods their lives with chaos. Harry repeatedly provokes Marianne with his rapid-fire speech, “throwing up his soul” (as we say in Italian, “vomitare l’anima”). Harry knows Marianne can’t properly defend herself or Paul from his attacks; she can’t really speak so can’t mount an adequate argument to silence him.
Where there is desire, you can be sure jealousy isn’t far behind. And the brief flashbacks that punctuate the film help to provide additional context for when this began to brew. In one of these we learn how Harry and Paul met, several years earlier, when Paul, a documentary filmmaker, was interviewing Harry about his career. We see them hit it off, meet for drinks, and Harry suggest that Paul meet Marianne. “We are done,” Harry says; Paul, curious but cautious, says, “You don’t want to do this.” And he’s right. It’s a decision Harry has come to regret and it drives an unyielding wedge between them. “We were like brothers, better than”, Harry notes when they argue by the pool late at night, wondering what went wrong. Now, they couldn’t be further apart, mostly bringing out the worst in each other.
Harry embodies a hedonistic world, where the fulfillment of pleasure takes precedence. As Paul observes, Harry will “fuck anything,” fuelled by the excessive gratification of desire. Guadagnino encourages us, I think, to see Harry as a rock-and-roll relic, a figure whose refusal to grow up will eventually do him some irrevocable harm. Marianne, however, has left both Harry and that lifestyle behind, and seems glad to have done so (or at least tells herself she is). If her voice doesn’t recover, she may have to leave it behind for good. She’s at a crossroads that Harry won’t accept – his presence disrupts her ability to adjust, drawing her back into the past.
Harry proffers that there is no point to Paul in Marianne’s life anymore, and in doing so, sets up a problem for her – a problem of desire. Harry serenades her with her own song during a boisterous karaoke session, gives her drugs, (their past relationship, we see in flashback, was a drug-fueled one), and wraps her in a thick, warm nostalgia blanket. He wants her to see life with Paul as sedate by comparison. Recovering from a suicide attempt and a drinking problem, he is, at best, as Harry belittles, “built for hibernating with”; at worst, Paul’s a master who has stripped her of any autonomy, putting a bell around her neck so she will never be free to be herself again.
Ultimately, these sexual provocations prompt moral and political questions. A Bigger Splash is much more than a ‘beautiful people lying around a pool in Italy’ film as images from its trailer and promotional materials might suggest.
Within a quartet, desire has the opportunity to flow in multiple directions, and in A Bigger Splash the sexual tension isn’t only unresolved between Marianne and Harry. There is also something discomfiting about the interactions between Harry and Penelope, kissing too slowly on the mouth, draping themselves off one another. Marianne observes that their karaoke duet of ‘Unforgettable’ by Nat King Cole is a little sexier than it should be. When she questions Harry about it the next day, he admits that he’s looked at Penelope and admired her but makes a spectacle of declaring in the middle of the street, “I am not fucking my daughter!” Whatever the true nature of their relationship is remains unresolved by Guadagnino by film’s end, and by then, the damage Penelope has come to help generate is already done.
But perhaps less obviously, there’s also something indeterminate between Harry and Paul. Harry’s desire for Marianne is, in part, the effect of his competitive streak (manifest in their spontaneous swimming contests). And Paul reciprocates this. When he goes down on Marianne as she dresses for a night out with Harry and not him, is it out of desire or a need to reassert his primacy in her life, which he senses is under threat? Within the rules of homosocial bonding, Marianne’s body is the site over which the men strengthen their own relationship. But that’s falling apart here, and something else is slipping through the cracks. In their final moments, locked together inside the pool, Guadagnino’s muscular, fervent direction illuminates the fine line that exists between fighting and fucking among men. And in this context, Paul’s futile attempts to revive Harry look more and more like an erotic kiss.
These provocative splashes have consequences, and because of them the film takes a darker turn with Harry’s death and its aftermath.
Personal interests ripple outward into the wider world. The significance of A Bigger Splash unfolding on an island that is a gate between Europe and North Africa can’t be overlooked. Guadagnino has spoken of his personal connection to Pantelleria, where he holidayed as a teenager. The island is today the site of frequent landings for refugee boats, and this reality encroaches on the rarified space that Marianne, Paul, Harry and Penelope inhabit as tourists. The refugees are shadowy figures in the narrative’s background. We see and know little of them. Harry’s aware of the island’s gateway attributes, noting that they once processed slaves here. We hear bits and pieces about the arrivals from televisions that other characters watch; Paul and Penelope come across a group of migrant men living amongst some ruins when they head out for their fateful hike.
Islands are in-between spaces. Isolated and adrift we might understand them as roped off from the rest of the world by water, forced to create their own microcosm of rules. Guadagnino has his own experience of living in an in-between space. Born in Sicily to an Italian father and an Algerian mother, he spent a portion of his childhood living in Ethiopia. He has said that when he agreed to develop the project that would eventually become A Bigger Splash (working closely with screenwriter David Kajganich), he knew immediately that the film would take place on Pantelleria. And once he arrived there with his cast and crew there was no way to ignore the human catastrophe that was unfolding around them. He never had any intention of doing so as these are very real issues to him.
While some critics have suggested that the refugee narrative has been ‘tacked on’ or is completely undeveloped, I’d argue that Guadagnino places these ‘characters’ on the film’s margins, because this is how people like Marianne, Paul, Harry and Penelope experience them. They are removed from the humanitarian turmoil just as they are removed from so much of the authentic life of the island, its otherness and ferocity. When they venture out into it – as Paul and Penelope do on the hike – it proves dangerous and disruptive and the rules they have established for themselves come unstuck. Consider that we see and know so little of the islands native inhabitants too. There is the maid, Clara (Elena Bucci), some local ricotta makers, people in town enjoying the festival, but they are all invisible bodies, tangential to the main drama. Even the comic Maresciallo dei Carabinieri (Corrado Guzzanti), in his role as both police detective and Marianne’s number one fan, acts primarily to resolve a story other than his own.
The presence of the refugees adds dissonance to the film’s beauty, putting to rest any accusations that Guadagnino tells stories that exist only on the surface of things. The film’s title – A Bigger Splash – is taken from the 1967 David Hockney painting of the same name (housed at the Tate Britain in London). It’s an image redolent with questions. A splash has occurred in a swimming pool but with no figures included in the image it’s impossible to know who has caused this eruption, what has happened or where they are now. We see neither the time before the splash or the time after, or what mystery lies under the surface. Hockney captures only the action itself, the moment of the event, and yet we know there is a story existing on either side of it, and that the meaning of that splash rings out, beyond the canvas.
The same is true in Guadagnino’s film, in the space on either side of the final events that take place in the pool between Harry and Paul. Every action has a reaction. Every action has consequences. As A Bigger Splash reaches its denouement, the personal and political collide in the ease with which Marianne uses the refugees as a scapegoat, casting doubt away from Paul onto them for Harry’s death. She explains to the policeman that the pool is easy to access from a path; that anyone could have come into the area and killed Harry, and that no one else at the house would be the wiser. Marianne’s decision exists in the greyest of grey areas, yet it is made, seemingly with little thought. If Marianne and Harry were once Communists, ready to smash up the world of their fathers, that principled life, along with their life together, is now well and truly gone.
Harry’s failure to pull Marianne and Paul apart has nevertheless affected the birth of something new. Now, they are closer together than ever, perhaps out of love, perhaps out of some other, greater, darker need. That they are selfish people isn’t really in doubt; the ambiguity around whether they have really attained the thing they most desired remains unresolved, as does the opacity of Paul’s apology (exactly what is it he is most sorry for). Harry’s presence has pushed everyone into a blacker space that has revealed each character for who they truly are. As he says to a resistant Marianne, as he bites at her shoulder and pushes himself inside her, begging her to betray Paul for him, “This is you. It’s in you.” Sometimes what the heart wants leaves a permanent scar. When Marianne and Paul laugh with relief in the film’s final scene, believing they have escaped punishment, do we feel relief along with them, or loathing? That Guadagnino forces us to question our own desires is A Bigger Splash’s great, resonating strength.