Wading into Nostalgia

A Bigger Splash (2015)

20th Century Fox

The thought of the world whereby it is experienced is better than the world.”
-Thomas Traherne

Repetition is never exact repetition, because the human registering it is different the second time.
Gertrude Stein

A Bigger Splash begins as it means to continue, with a catalogue of highs: stadium roars, afternoon sun, poolside sex. Director Luca Guadagnino shifts between the public and private spheres, showing a life of uninterrupted pleasure, never stymied by the mundane, satiating one appetite after the other. A rock star, her lover, an old flame, and his daughter converge on a Mediterranean hideout, as Guadagnino’s trademark lyrical rhythm serves us a moral gazpacho—these stars, alive to pagan pleasures and lit with intense desires, are just as subject to the whims of lust and revenge as all of us. 

Anyone who has ever enjoyed (or endured) a long weekend with friends will recognize the melody of A Bigger Splash. What is unique in Guadagnino’s telling is that the weekend’s ebbing and flowing is that of the immensely privileged, of superstars. Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich have freely adapted the film from Jacques Deray’s 1969 original, La Piscine, relocating it from the South of France, to the Italian island of Pantelleria—closer to Tunisia than Sicily. The piscine still dominates in this version, as it did for the original, as The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw describes: “The pool itself is the center for all sorts of sensuality and something in the very lineaments of the pool itself creates their own awful destiny: it is a primordial swamp of desire, a space in which there is nothing to do but laze around, furtively looking at semi-naked bodies.” 

We start with the percussive portent of glam-rock starlet Marianne Lane’s (Tilda Swinton) concert; hundreds of thousands of bodies reach out to touch her sequined body in the heat. The background music of their past swiftly becomes the soundtrack of the present, drumming over Marianne, as she enjoys afternoon sex with photographer boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). A weekend of reunion, of pagan pleasures, of sexual jealousy and old feuds follows—in fits and starts, with the rhythm of real life. These characters hang out—but they could never live together. Distended morals, outsized wants, and craven searches for the past prevent them from ever engaging in an authentic conversation, let alone whittling out a new path for a relationship. Harry, Penelope, Marianne, and Paul itch, not under the withering island sun, but with confused sexual urges, with apologies unsaid, and with love, of course, unrequited. 

Guadagnino punctures the lulls and doldrums of a long weekend—long, aimless dinner conversations; lounging in the living room at 4 p.m., scouring the day’s photos—with quickly-cut bursts of frenetic action. Cocktails whiz in a blender; a turntable prickles with a new track. We feel Marianne’s and Paul’s exasperation at unexpected and uninvited dinner guests, are invited to their dinner-party post mortem (“You know we can’t be naked anymore, right?”), and gratuitously watch these stars shimmering in and out of the pool like visions. Guadagnino’s sensual touch seems to say: this is how David Bowie (fittingly, who Swinton was long in the running to portray in a biopic) would sun himself in a villa; how Mick Jagger might croon at elevenses. The main quartet of immensely privileged characters are appalling and amusing; they are enticing and exhausting. They are obscene. But, as Harry (Ralph Fiennes) spits at Paul in their final scene: “We’re all obscene. Everyone’s obscene. That’s the whole fucking point.”

Like La Piscine, Guadagnino keeps things primordial here; Marianne and Paul are like the original man and woman, with literal snakes crawling into their paradise. (“We have them every day,” Paul announces to their guests, as he nonchalantly tosses another into the bushes.) Their Edenic villa is interrupted by Harry and his estranged daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Harry has designs on reigniting his extinguished flame with Marianne, and Penelope has sights on razing everything within them. 

It’s fitting that a remake should be so much about nostalgia: Paul’s nostalgia for his work as a documentarian, Harry’s nostalgia for his relationship with Marianne, Marianne’s longing for a friendship with Harry. Their bond is more like a rusted chain shackled to their ankles than it is a living, breathing web of a true relationship. Nostalgia is the currency of many friendships, but it’s quickly spent when you’re spending time with one another. It speaks to the pain we feel when our hearts and minds drift to the past, the pressing of a bruise which, albeit satisfying, is sore. Nostalgia warms your cockles like whiskey, settling neatly within the stomach to light the flickering embers from within. 

In A Bigger Splash, the past is not dead—it’s not even the past. They are all aware of this. The specter of Paul’s suicide attempts circles innocent idyll poolside conversation. The fecund gutting of fish evokes Harry’s attempts to sew new sinew into his and Marianne’s love life. The question mark of Penelope’s lineage affords her a protective bubble of identity. Karaoke, ecstasy, Dionysian sex by the poolside—none can deliver them from the ties that bind. The words of poet and Guggenheim Fellow Mary Ruefle, in her famous poem, “Deconstruction” describes this feeling in fittingly Hellenic terms: “I think the sirens in The Odyssey sang The Odyssey, for there is nothing more seductive, more terrible, than the story of our own life, the one we do not want to hear, and will do anything to listen to.”

The film’s title performs a hollow mimicry of David Hockney’s famous painting as the lovers step through their own pas de deux of the past. Marianne croaks in pale imitation of her stadium belters; Harry unstrips and shakes off his skin to the music of a Rolling Stones record he once produced. As Harry croons, sways, dances, and monologues about the album, he is telling the story behind the moment, stripping the current moment clean of its own temporality, grabbing us all by the wrists into the past. It’s biography as autobiography. This notion recurs throughout A Bigger Splash; idleness allows for overreaching into our pasts, allows us to stew and wallow. 

It’s here, in the interrelationship between pleasant idle and swooning romance, that A Bigger Splash not only foreshadows Guadagnino’s own Call Me By Your Name, but also wears the influences of Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse proudly on its tanned skin. Both are set in summer villas, grappling with the romantic tyranny of a summer love, both contain a quartet of lovers encircling one another, dangling every variety of love—familial, platonic, sexual, and romantic—before each other. 

But Guadagnino, as with Sagan, is not so intellectually lazy as to immediately equate his characters’ idleness solely with moral looseness or lack of acuity. Both grasped that the two can exist in a relationship, albeit a tense one. This is not the general philosophy of the poets. Rather than sermonize on how the rot of hedonism corrodes us all, Guadagnino appears to revel in it, beseeching us to do the same. His shots favor the torsos, in particular, Schoenaerts’, calling to mind the rippled, beheaded bodies of antique statues, found in some abandoned palazzo. At times, through myriad tense long lunches and suppers, Guadagnino seems to mirror Sartre’s insistence that “l’enfer, c’est les autres.”

There is such beauty and ugliness here. Marianne is a towering presence, but her voice is as rough as the volcanic earth of Pantelleria. Harry is odious—a rueful snob, a preening satyr living for his own amusement and devouring others for fodder. We have all met a Harry, the kind of person whose charisma has the effect of a sharecropper: flattening anything smaller than itself, enveloping all in its wake, tearing asunder anything that rises up to it, bringing closer to its bosom anything within its path. This is especially implied at the awkward and vicious lunch midway through the film, where Harry invites two friends without permission—both to flatter his ego, and to supplant the fact that Marianne has lost her voice. Marianne is forced to deliberately shatter a wine glass midway through to derail a particularly pointed and painful track of conversation. Obsequious and vain, the mother and daughter visitors lack the easy charm of our main quartet. It is something else, something more exclusive, that Guadagnino proposes: not that hell is other people, but that hell is not the right people. 

Nonetheless, we see in time that each character is impotent in their own way. Marianne is a rock star without a voice. Paul, a documentarian with no subject. Harry, a producer past his prime. Only Penelope’s power is unswerving and unquestioned, and it lies, quite simply, in her youth. Rarely has Johnson’s on-screen passivity been put so effectively to use; where it appeared in the 50 Shades series merely as rigor mortis, here she she is sly, lithe, and the only one with any agency or power, all of which is afforded to her by the simple fact she is too young to have made the mistakes of the others. Having neither great success nor great mistakes behind her, she is all future, all luster, all promise.

Penelope picks apart a fig with as much intention as Timothée Chalamet turned towards his darling peach. Penelope claws her way into its easy flesh in the same absent-minded way she unknits the ties between Marianne and her men. In a tight shot, Guadagnino shows how she peels it apart, eyes steadfast on Marianne, the predator toying with its prey. In Call Me by Your Name, the peach is ripeness, handed onto the lover to devour. There is no subtlety there, probably because first love has no subtlety. It excludes it, trading only in the clichés that it writes for itself before seeing that everyone else has already set them down. Later on, Harry spooning freshly-made ricotta to Marianne is just that: love, nourishment, his gesture after an afternoon of bickering that he can offer something to her, can give her this

That the film is not all romance, not all tactile delights and unrequited love, is almost a disappointment. On first viewing, it angered me, the black streak that scythes apart the film’s final third. This is no whodunnit, no Patricia Highsmith adaptation, so why the manufactured drama of the poolside wrestle between Harry and Paul, with Harry’s murder twisting the skein of the plot? By now, Harry has forced himself upon Marianne, boxing her into corners at the island fair and in its cobblestone alleyways. His bonhomie has evaporated, and the clouds have gathered. The Italians have a saying: “After three days, fish and houseguests go bad.” Guadagnino sets this in action, as Harry begins to lambast Pantelleria and everything about it: “They used to process slaves on this island, did you know that? I hate this fucking island.” Keen to invoke its grim history or its context only as a blunt tool to use against others, it’s that trademark narcissist tool: If I’m having a rotten time, so should everyone else.

Guadagnino precedes Harry’s murder by playing with shadows and sounds. As Harry and Marianne spiral the mountainside driving home, they seem to soar above the clouds. At the villa, Harry sits and stews, his face half-obscured by darkness. The jaunty jazz of earlier is replaced with discordant strings and forlorn trumpets. The men fight, Harry is murdered, and, in killing Harry, Paul has taken action for the first time all film, because, well, destruction can feel like creation. Guadagnino’s aerial zoom from Harry’s body out of the pool and to the sky shows those same woven Hockney lines at the bottom of the pool—only they are made of blood, not paint. In a Fellini-esque touch, he zooms out further and further until it is almost comical, until the villa and the cliffs and the houses look like a toy set. Until it looks like Guadagnino is playing God. Bringing us into the aftermath of the murder, he plays again with shadows and tigher and tigher boxes. We observe Penelope and the detective through the grilles of the kitchen and Marianne from the small window above her sink, outside looking in, at the top of the tower, locked away in her enchanted castle. 

The introduction of the migrant crisis in the film’s final third is somewhat baffling as to verge on the tasteless. In 2011, a boat of 250 refugees sank off the coast of Pantelleria. A news report stated: “It is not clear why the migrant boat was unable to enter the harbor safely.” Only in passing conversation has the migrant population of the island been referred to, and only encountered when Penelope and Paul go hiking, leaving the confines of the villa to stumble across a group of migrants, speechless. But this functions as their deus ex machina; Marianne is able to nudge the detective’s attention to this path and suggest one of the migrants was responsible for Harry’s death. The elite scapegoating migrants for their own destruction is the sort of fascist rot that has become so quotidien in today’s politic. So, how does Guadagnino expect us to sympathize with this lot? The film’s credo is neither an “eat the rich” rallying cry nor “stars—they’re just like us!” statement. Violent delights have violent ends, as has always been the case. 

Perhaps the takeaway is this: if these people cannot be happy—these stars, in their Prada sunglasses, their Platonic nudity, their very own Eden (complete with mud bath skincare) what chance do we have? If the past is inaccessible, but ever present, where do we find happiness between our regrets for what has passed, and our anxieties for what’s to come? It’s a reminder that during the times of crisis, it is always the poorest and most vulnerable in our society that suffer the harshest. Just as, at present, our celebrities give themselves away on Tik Tok and Instagram, no longer stepping down from their pedestal, but rather tap-dancing upon it, in attempts at our amusement, we are becoming increasingly aware of the capricious natures of such matters in a time when life is so much worse, for so many.

The tension here lies in watching the lives and hanging out with these characters, as repellent as their actions, morals, and decisions may be, and having it remain so seductive. It is unsurprising that Guadagnino’s films have lived on as such viral fodder for the Instagram crowd. Why post pictures of your life when Tilda Swinton in Prada sunglasses is what you really aspire to be? Perhaps this is where the looping appeal of screenshotting and gif-ing his films on Pinterest and Instagram lies—within your mimetic loop of perfection, you partake, even own, their same easy joy, that hedonistic pleasure. 

Yet the film’s closing suggests a storm is coming. In the final scene, the rain scans across the road in thick sheets. A police officer stops Paul and Marianne, who, sensing their alibi has crumbled, have their hearts stopped. He makes his way through the storm to their little golf cart, the one they have so jauntily been weaving around the island in all film. Stricken, and worrying the folds of her dress, Marianne expects the worst. Instead, ever-grinning, the detective asks for her autograph. It’s for his family—they’re all big fans. Her face unfurls with waves of relief. The officer hurries back to his own car. The amorality of Sagan is again here at play. The covered-up murder allows their mud-bathing and post-prandial sex to go on unabated. We are left with Paul and Marianne, laughing in great, big, deep exhalations; relieved at their close call, their escape, their release. Their life on this island can continue, their summer days will come again, they will continue to have it all, all together, all to themselves, these idle kings.