The detachment of luxury leads to dire consequences.
The Italian island of Pantellerìa serves as the tumultuous setting for A Bigger Splash, the latest film from Italian director Luca Guadagnino. Pantellerìa informs the action in more ways than one. In reality, as in the film, the island is a place populated by luxury vacationers and high-profile with Giorgio Armani owning a villa there. Yet, the volcanic island of Pantellerìa is a also a place of intense underlying tension. Lying less than thirty miles off the coast of Tunisia, it has long been a destination for African refugees decades before mainland Europe experienced the refugee crisis of the past few years. As Tilda Swinton, one of the film’s four radiant stars, said in our interview with her, the island is “just pulsating with a brutal, brutal energy.”
This energy radiated by the island contributes tones of inevitability and otherness to the film’s four main characters. Swinton stars as Marianne Lane, a wildly popular rock star who has recently lost her voice due to an operation on her vocal chords. She and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are vacationing on Pantellerìa in an effort to escape the rest of the world and obtain some much needed respite from their dark pasts. Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s former lover and record producer, flagrantly bombards into their sanctuary of peace and turns it into a tense environment in which characters vie for dominance over one another. Carted along with Harry is his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Penelope claims to be in her early twenties, on spring break from college. Harry has only just learned about the existence of his daughter, who is the product of an affair from years earlier.
Each of these four characters represents one player of a very well-balanced quartet. Marianne is inarticulate and almost entirely mute, silently trying to grapple with the convergence of her past and present at once and her inner turmoil at the changes of time. Paul is recovering from a recent suicide attempt and is repeatedly emasculated and challenged for Marianne’s affection by the persistent needling of Harry. Penelope consistently pushes Marianne and Paul’s buttons while expressing her fierce sexuality any chance she gets and insisting on having already seen it all and done it all. Finally, Harry wraps his whole self up in telling stories of the past and maintaining as much youthful joie de vivre as he possibly can, refusing to let go of the past.
The quartet of the film exists in a place of luxury, residing in a gorgeous villa with a pristine swimming pool, expansive vistas, and a maid. At the film’s outset, the luxuriousness of the characters and their setting is emphasized, with camerawork that pays close attention to Marianne’s outfits, the beauty of their surroundings, and the environment of the villa. Yet later on, important scenes hinge on the locals and on the brutality of the rocky savannah of Pantellerìa. As the four English-speaking protagonists mostly keep to themselves and indulge in their own desires, jealousies, and petty power plays, they pay no mind to the swarms of refugees or the tense political situation surrounding them. By the film’s climax however, all four characters are abruptly reminded of their own humanity and the realities of being made of the same flesh and blood as every other.
By its conclusion, A Bigger Splash turns out to be far more than meets the eye. What initially tries to pass itself off as the standard fare about ultra-wealthy celebrities and their gilded problems end up being a much deeper piece of art about current politics, the crushing weight of humanity, and the consequences of hefty moral decisions.
A Bigger Splash is directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by David Kagjanich. It stars Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Dakota Johnson. The film competed for the Golden Lion at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival. It opens in theaters on May 4, 2016.
Photo credits: Little White Lies.