It’s hard to find a film more sinfully enjoyable than Luca Guadagnino’s vibrant thriller A Bigger Splash. Guadagnino is best known for his work in the fashion world for brands like Moschino and Ferragamo and for his previous film I Am Love (also starring Tilda Swinton), which explored a slowly collapsing Italian dynasty. While I Am Love was grounded in silences and images of grandeur, A Bigger Splash is the opposite. Like a good rock album, it’s sweaty, messy, carefree, and irresistible. We caught up with Guadagnino to discuss the film’s costumes, choreography, and generational conflict.
Loosely based on the 1969 Jacques Deray film La Piscine (though Guadagnino is hesitant to draw comparisons),A Bigger Splash is a fiery film about desire and identity. The film unfolds over a summer vacation on the Italian island of Pantelleria where aging rocker Marianne (Tilda Swinton, in a near-mute performance) is recovering from throat surgery with her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is recuperating from his attempted suicide. Like the desert winds that sweep across the island, chaos arrives in the form of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a freewheeling record producer and Marianne’s former lover, and his newly discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Tumult ensues as personalities, desires, and ideologies collide.
For Guadagnino, the same distance between the old world and the new world that characterized I Am Love is at play in A Bigger Splash. The older generation, Marianne and Harry, is much more carefree, while the younger Paul and Penelope are more conservative. “I think it’s a reflection of the generational conversation happening now,” Guadagnino explained. “We are entangled into a web…of nostalgic expectations of endless enjoyment, and on the other side, we have a sort of almost cynical drive distancing ourselves from any kind of emotions”.
1970s music provides an easy entrance point for nostalgia in film, whether it’s Jean-Marc Vallee’s use of Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd-heavy soundtracks or David O. Russell opening Joy with Cream’s “I Feel Free”.A Bigger Splash turns this up to 11 in a pivotal scene. Harry animatedly recounts an experience of recording with The Rolling Stones, before cranking “Emotional Rescue” on the turntable and dancing through the villa with reckless abandon (The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin said Fiennes “elevat[ed] dad-dancing into the realm of performance art”).
Fiennes’ dancing is electric, filled with energy and spontaneity. For Guadagnino, who confesses he works “on everything” in his films, the true magic of the scene was the product of some careful work with a choreographer. “We talked about the context, the moments in which Harry was dancing, and in general, we liked to talk about the body language of Harry,” he said. “It was all about making that moment of dance REALLY BIG, absolutely organic, you know, to the character. We wanted that to be his life. He’s really being alive. He’s being himself in the moment [in] the most organic way.”
For Tilda Swinton, expressing Marianne’s identity wasn’t as simple as an anecdote and a song. During production, it was Swinton’s idea to render her character completely mute from throat surgery. This means Marianne’s story is told entirely through gestures, glances, and her fantastic costumes designed by Raf Simons.
Guadagnino,who says his fashion work “has nothing to do” with the importance of costume in his films, said he was instrumental in helping to create the costumes that showed Marianne’s change from free-spirited rocker to a more muted personality. In the film, Harry accuses Marianne of “wearing your mother’s clothes now”, with a conservative, settled persona to match. “What was she thinking of, coming back to being the proper image of quietness and restraint?” Guadagnino agrees.
“I think she got that (sense of being conservative) from her mother, as Harry says, bringing that back to her. But not in a sense of transformation, mostly in a sense of believing and trying to understand deeply her roots.” Asked what exactly her roots were, Guadagnino says, “we talked as if she could have been the daughter of Ingrid Bergman”.
As frustrations emerge between the characters, Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography keeps the atmosphere taut by making the film’s audience share the characters’ uneasiness. “We tried to make sure the point of view we picked for the movie is committed to the story we’re telling,” Guadagnino said. “So, if it’s a movie like this one, sort of [about] discomfort, the attention and relationship to the camera will be trying to play that discomfort”.
It’s a hard balance to achieve, walking the line between a languid drama and a searing thriller. But for Guadagnino, it’s as simple as doing what the characters in the film find so difficult: talking to each other. “It’s a hard balance to find, and we all invest ourselves in deep conversations to be as honest as possible. That’s what we do”.