Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 5 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 3; Language 6; Sex 6/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
…for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father, but from the world.
Italian director Luca Guadagnino chose to name his film after a 1967 work by the well known British painter David Hockney. During that artist’s sojourn in Los Angeles he had become enamored with the year-round swimming pools that the residents regarded as a necessity, due to the hot weather, and not a luxury. Hockney created numerous paintings of swimming pools, “A Bigger Splash” showing the splash but not the person who has just dived in. Such a pool, though much larger, figures prominently in this film, though it is far from California, the setting of the story being the volcanic island of Pantelleria, many miles south of Italy’s coast.
In this remake of the 1969 film, La Piscine, the brief opening shot shows David Bowie-style rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), clad in a glitzy body suit, standing on the stage of a giant sports stadium packed with tens of thousands of adoring fans. Switch to the present in which Marianne and her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are enjoying a long reclusive sojourn in a villa on the island. The singer is recovering from a throat operation designed to save her faltering voice, so she is enjoined not to speak at all if possible, or at least never above a whisper.
They are not pleased to receive the phone call from Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) that he is at the airport in need of lodging. He has with him his recently discovered daughter Penelope Lannier (Dakota Johnson). Of course, because he is the old friend who had introduced the two of them back in the days when he was the producer of Marianne’s records, they cannot refuse him hospitality. Boisterously loud, spitting out his words as fast as an assault rifle, and sometimes as hurtful, he is just the kind of person the pair had sought refuge from during Marianne’s weeks of recovery. Many of the islanders had recognized Marianne but had respected her privacy. We see almost right away Harry’s nature when during a walk he stops along the path and, to Paul’s consternation, opens his trousers to urinate. “Harry, come on, that’s a grave,” Paul admonishes him. “Well, Europe’s a grave,” the unfazed Harry responds.
Harry apparently has come with an agenda—the winning back of Marianne. Although he unfatherly touches and kisses Penelope frequently so that the hosts wonder about what is going on between them, that he is interested in Marianne we see by the many times he seeks just her company on walks, leaving the very voluptuous Penelope, dressed in skimpy clothing, alone with Paul. At one point the girl even says that she might seek a paternity test to see if Harry really is her father. There is a lot of nude bathing in the swimming pool, and the shirtless Harry shows off, in one scene dancing wildly to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue.” Almost as if he cannot tolerate silence, his mouth is constantly spouting off, at one time pulling out records of Marianne and playing a cut, pointing out his contributions as the song’s producer. I was intrigued by one of the posters for the film showing the four characters, and intertwining them is a serpent. At least a couple of times Paul or Marianne pick up an snake intruding their Eden and toss it into the underbrush. There is no doubt as to who and what this symbol represents!
The characters’ comfortable, hedonistic life style is contrasted in a couple of scenes with those of refugees who have washed up on the island while trying to make their way to the Continent. Pantelleria is located between Algeria and Italy, so hordes of refugees fleeing war and oppression in small boats have made it only as far as the island, where the police have taken them into custody. While shopping in the village Marianne passes a mesh fenced compound attached to the police station where men and boys are playing soccer. When the ball flies over the wire fence, she retrieves it and throws it back. At another time a group of men hiding in the hills are encountered on a pathway. Other than retrieving the ball, none of the four pay any heed to the unfortunates. (I wonder, had Marianne been like other musicians like Bono or Sting what might she have done?)
Matters come to a head between Harry and Paul after the latter fails to return from a hike with Penelope until long after darkness has fallen. Earlier at the sea shore the girl had come on to Paul, but we are not sure how far he had gone with her. The showdown between the former friends is tumultuous, and the swimming pool, briefly seen from high above in a long shot, figures in prominently. We know from the ambiguous ending in which the police are involved that the characters’ lives and relationships are changed forever. And that sometimes it is easy to shift blame for a terrible deed onto those regarded as unwelcome outsiders.
I am not sure how much guilt the characters will feel. Probably not a lot because the filmmakers have attached a semi-humorous coda involving the police detective chasing after Paul and Marianne in his car with its top blue lights flashing. Some have considered this addition a mistake, but I think it is another of the filmmakers’ comment on celebrityhood. If you are famous and well liked, is there anything that you cannot get away with?
Note: You can see David Hockney’s painting at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hockney-a-bigger-splash-t03254/text-summary
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the June issue of VP.