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Luca Guadagnino talks to The Economist about “A Bigger Splash”
LUCA GUADAGNINO is best known to international audiences for his 2009 hit, “I am Love” / “Io Sono L’Amore”. But the Italian director will soon be better known for “A Bigger Splash”, a stylishly sultry remake of Jacques Deray’s “La Piscine” (1969). Tilda Swinton plays a rock star, Marianne Lane, who is on holiday on the remote volcanic island of Pantelleria. Just as she is enjoying some quality time with her boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), their idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Marianne’s hedonistic old flame, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his seductive daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). At first, it seems as if Harry wants nothing more than to be the life and soul of the party. But Paul suspects that he has an ulterior motive for his unexpected visit, and a rambunctious comedy of manners becomes a politically-tinged thriller.
Mr Guadagnino took The Economist‘s questions about the film.
How did you come to make “A Bigger Splash”?
I have a number of projects that I’ve been dreaming of making ever since I was a child. But I am also very open to the chances of life, and the chances of my profession. One of those was my meeting with StudioCanal a few years ago. After I did “I Am Love”, they asked me if I was interested in going back to this legendary cult film, “La Piscine”, with Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. I had to think about it. I really had to understand what my personal input could be. I thought, what is the story about? I realised it was about desire: this mysterious invisible force that has very visible consequences for people. That was the starting point that led me to feel that I could remake what was already a very accomplished film.
Some critics grumbled last year about the wave of art-house directors from non-English-speaking countries who were making films in English, including Matteo Garrone and Yorgos Lanthimos. Is that a complaint that bothers you?
I started my career in features by shooting a movie in 1998 called “The Protagonists” with Tilda. That was shot in London in English. In 1993, my first documentary was about the civil war in Algeria. That was in French and in Arabic. Another short film I did was silent. What I’m trying to say is that, yes, I’m Italian, and yes, I make films with Italian money, but personally I’ve always been invested in the broader world of film-making. And so I see myself as being different from directors who have been creating films in their own language and then decide to step into the English-speaking world.
How important was it for you to set the film on Pantelleria?
The film’s three main elements were desire, rock’n’roll and Pantelleria. It’s one of the furthest islands from the Italian mainland. Geographically, it’s African, but it’s a gateway to Europe. What was important was the natural otherness of the place: the wind, the sun, the volcano, this very fierce natural environment. You also have the migrants who are travelling through it on their way to somewhere else. This meant that the almost autistic, self-contained world of this quartet of westerners could be shattered by the storming power of the island and its inhabitants.
You mentioned rock’n’roll. Why did you want the characters to be in the music business, and rock music to feature so heavily on the soundtrack?
As I said, the film is about desire, and desire comes with melancholy, a sense of longing, a sense of unaccomplishment. If you desire something, you don’t have it. It is more interesting than enjoyment, because enjoyment erases the mysteries and the vision of desire. Desire opens up possibilities but never achieves anything, whereas enjoyment is just the brutal achievement of something—and after that it’s done. Berlusconi is enjoyment, to be very blunt. But, to me, the idea of longing leads to the concept of rock’n’roll. Because the rock’n’roll promise of a revolution has been denied and wiped out—but the subversive power of that music, that generation, and that way of life is still a sort of fire under the ashes. And cinematically it is so seductive. I hope that the music in the movie is not just a decoration for the ears. It’s a character in itself.
Ralph Fiennes is especially entertaining as a record producer who can’t stop reminiscing about the Rolling Stones or dancing to their music. It’s an unusual role for him.
I’d been a big fan of Ralph for many many years, so I always dreamt of working with him. And then I saw him in the trailer of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, and I thought, hang on a minute, this guy has always played such brooding and intense characters; I didn’t know he had such levity or that he could be so garrulous. So I gave him the script and I told him that the character of Harry was id unleashed. Ralph is very intense, personally. He tests you a lot. I was under scrutiny, I know. But when he read the script he said, “There is something in this character that is very close to me. How did you know?” I said, “Instinct. Intuition.”
Marianne Lane is recovering from a throat operation, so Tilda Swinton hardly speaks for most of the film. How did that idea come about?
I said to the writer, David Kajganich, “Let’s put in a lot of dialogue, let’s use the dialogue as much as we use the visuals.” So we had Marianne firing back fiercely at Harry when they argue. But when Tilda came aboard, very very late in the process, she said, “I think that Marianne should be inarticulate. I think she should battle against this flow of talk by not talking.” The idea is a testament to how much of a genius Tilda is. The boldness of it was irresistible, and it led to a more subtle portrayal of these people, and an amazing performance by her. She did something very clever. When we started rolling the first day, I said to Tilda, “What is Marianne doing? There is something there I recognise. She reminds me of somebody.” She said, “Is it Harpo Marx?” And I said, “Oh yes!” So Harpo Marx was the inspiration for Tilda.
What is the connection between the film and the David Hockney painting which gives it its title?
What was important to us about the painting was the house being silent, and the sun, and the Sixties, and the question of what was happening under the surface of the water. We actually shot a scene where you see the painting in the Tate Gallery in London. It was there from the very beginning of the script: “We are standing in front of David Hockney’s ‘A Bigger Splash.’” It was still there in the first edit, but eventually I said, “I love the scene but I think it’s a narcissistic redundancy.” We have to cut it. We will put it in the extras of the Blu-Ray.