Luca Gaudagnino’s latest film, A Bigger Splash, is a perplexing viewing experience.
Gaudagnino appears hell-bent upon a deliberate misuse of the language of film, its codes and conventions, in an attempt to portray a world where seemingly everyone, including the audience, have lost the ability to, in all senses of the word, ‘read’ effectively. He attempts a metaphorical exploration of a paradox which shows that in a supposedly globally connected world, we have, seemingly at every level, lost our ability to communicate and consequently, as a result, are adrift in a permanent state of dislocation.
We are made to share these feelings of disorientation and alienation by Gaudagnino through his subversion of his audience’s assumed film literacy, to the point where we cannot accurately rely on how we decipher film codes. We can no longer ‘speak’ the language, so we are forced into the same state of communication breakdown that the hapless Italian police investigators, along with the downtrodden refugees depicted in the film, are also having to endure.
We are made to feel confused from the outset: the incongruity of the sunny vistas of the Mediterranean island; the breezy and bright font choices selected for the opening and closing credits; the inappropriate soundtrack music choices and its oppositional lyrical content; the counter-intuitive editing and shot selections – all contribute to our sense of disorientation.
The publicity blurb bills the film as an ‘erotic thriller’ – a description so far from the mark that it has to be a deliberate ploy to establish a clear gulf between audience expectation and the narrative the film delivers.
The plot revolves around an all but mute mass media star, rock legend Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) who is recovering, after surgery on her vocal chords, on the volcanic Mediterranean island of Pantelleria with her current lover, suicide attempt survivor, Paul (Matthias Schoenarts). Into this idyllic retreat comes Lane’s former record producer and ex-lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) travelling with his newly discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson), and what ensues is a confusion of secret histories and half-told truths, misunderstandings and betrayals, all set to a background of the unfolding refugee influx into Italy with its stories of tragic drownings and heartbreak.
Inevitably, the lack of clear communication between the main quartet of characters leads to tragedy and, in the investigation of this event, the local carabinieri misinterpret the evidence subsequently adding to the overall Babel-esque metaphor.
Always in the background are the refugees. And it is in the juxtaposition of the relatively petty relationship machinations of the protagonists set against the more serious struggles of the disenfranchised multitudes fleeing Syria where the key to understanding this film lies. The fact that this bigger issue does not make a ‘bigger splash’ in the collective consciousness of us all as we are so caught up in our own self-interest seems to be the point Gaudagnino is so clumsily making.
The setting, style and tone of the film are so clearly reminiscent of Francois Ozon’s 2003 film, Swimming Pool (starring Charlotte Rampling as a famous novelist also on a Mediterranean retreat) that it could be seen as a homage; but the film’s ambitions are more aligned with Michael Haneke’s 2005 psychological thriller, Hidden, where the main plot action served merely as a deflection from the film’s main core intention and obscured its deeper purpose of exposing bourgeois guilt.
A Bigger Splash attempts to tell us we have become so consumed with our own internal emotional dialogues that we have lost the ability to effectively communicate in any broader forum. It is a bleak message and, by film’s end, we can only assume Gaudagnino’s film stands as a recognition of an assumed fact that we are all doomed to continual confusion and frustration whilst we try to negotiate our way through a largely illiterate and dangerously nonsensical future. The ironic and pointed close-up of The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue album cover ‘drowned’ at the bottom of the swimming pool seemed to confirm this to be true.
Reviewed by Ken Grady