A Bigger Splash, Luca Guadagnino’s new entertainment set on the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily, would be only a somewhat stale and unconvincing product were it not for its treatment of the European refugee crisis, which makes the film lurch from the merely vulgar into the grotesque.
The movie tells the story of Marianne Lane, a famous rock star, and Paul, her photographer boyfriend, whose summer idyll is interrupted by the arrival of her ex, Harry, a record producer, and his newly discovered teenage daughter, Penelope. It’s important to note the immediate falseness of the premise and the smirking tone the film adopts. Harry, we are told in an agonisingly unironic scene early on, produced music for the Rolling Stones. In this scene, the Stones are allowed to stand for ‘coolness’, the rock lifestyle, and for authenticity (it’s important that they’re played on a vinyl record). Harry is here to visit Marianne, hoping, apparently, that though she is now in a couple with her toyboy she has stayed emotionally Faithfull to him. Marianne has lost her voice recently, and is resting it under doctor’s orders. We are shown a flashback of her in a performance at a stadium concert. This rings hollow: is Marianne supposed to be modelled on anyone? What solo artist sells out a whole stadium anymore? Elton John, maybe. Beyonce. But the artist that Marianne is painted to be simply does not exist: singers like her would perform at Union Chapel these days, or the Hammersmith Apollo at a push. This matters, because it pinpoints how out of touch the film is, and because the movie fetishises money. In the actual world, Marianne would be very well off, certainly – on a par with, say, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. In the film, she has to be fabulously famous and wealthy, for reasons that are not apparent at first.
Marianne isn’t the only character who does not and could not exist: Ralph Fiennes’s monster of a record producer, who represents a parody of rock star hedonism, is also pushed to the very brink of verisimilitude – in order to heighten the tension in the film but also because the movie deals in such grand gestures, paints everything in such broad strokes. Harry is a fuck-everything bon vivant, a show-off, a charming bully: only in his very last scenes is any shade allowed to creep into this caricature. With him he brings a daughter played by Dakota Johnson, who arrives fresh from 50 Shades of Grey, which was perhaps not coincidentally the last film before this one to fetishise sex and money with such grim abandon. Christian Grey is a billionaire, and Marianne and Harry are only millionaires, but both films commodify sex and the moneyed lifestyle in very similar ways (which I’ll come to in a while) – and Johnson plays again the virginal ingenue discovering the fascinating sexual lifestyle of the rich and famous. Rounding out the cast, Marianne’s boyfriend Paul is roughly the only character who could possibly exist: an unemployed photographer who hangs out at his rich girlfriend’s house, he seems like a reasonably convincing person until the film’s absurd narrative tilt in its last act.
The issue of realism is crucial. The film and its characters worship at the altar of a wholly confected ‘authenticity’. The glamour of A Bigger Splash, and its whole tone, is to be found in the coexistence of vast wealth and ‘the real’. Marianne and Paul drive a battered little jeep. They buy local (a scene where Fiennes and Swinton observe a Sicilian mamma making real ricotta is one of the film’s most hilariously tacky) and eat at small restaurants known only to an exclusive cohort. Paul wears a sexily moth-eaten t-shirt at all times. At a local music festival, Harry and Marianne dive into a small bar to sing karaoke, where they are soon joined by wide-eyed villagers, amazed and delighted that the rich people from the secluded villa in the hills have deigned to grace their humble winery. An early scene in which Marianne and Paul cake themselves in mud at the seaside exemplifies all the ways in which these characters seek out ‘real’ (meaning poor, or dirty, or old) experiences. The film itself mirrors this quest for the authentic by depicting its characters in all their honeyed beauty against crumbling Sicilian backdrops, tying it in nicely with the recent fad in cinema for ruin porn. Despite all of this, it’s worth noting that the characters have next to no interest in local culture or history. An early scene in which Paul upbraids Harry for urinating on an old grave serves only to paint Harry’s character: “All of Europe’s a grave!” he exclaims. If the film were to explore that contention, perhaps satirising the death of Europe’s culture and influence, that would be no bad thing – but the movie is uncritical at best, in deep thrall to its gorgeous subjects at worst.At the same time that the film exalts the idea of the natural/real/authentic, it is at pains to codify the wealth of its protagonists and general glamour of their lifestyles. A good handful of the movie’s shots show us events reflected in one of the main character’s designer sunglasses. Tilda Swinton’s dresses are extraordinarily chic haute-couture numbers, worn on an excursion to the local shop to pick up a £100 block of Parmesan for Harry to grate over his food on the terrazza of the stupendously expensive villa they’re staying in. The house is so huge, it has a converted barn. Everyone spends the day doodling about on Apple computers or toying with expensive cameras. Harry drives a sports car and fills the fridge with champagne. This carefully coded luxury, erring just on the tasteful side of opulence (for all that the characters own and buy things, we never see anything so coarse as money changing hands), adds to the film’s general air of kitsch.
The film’s highly artificial characters, then, living in their confected, disconnected world of torpid affluence, enact a terribly false scenario of sexual jealousy, ending with the two men fighting over the two women, which results in Harry’s death. At this point, the film takes a turn for the deeply sinister, during a scene in which Marianne is interrogated at the local constabulary. Hearing a police officer say that seven refugees had recently been found dead off the coast of Lampedusa, and fearing that her boyfriend will be found guilty of Harry’s murder, she seizes on this opportunity to note that a path goes right by her house which would have enabled anyone (meaning: refugees) to be in the area, and kill Harry. What is grim is not that Marianne would be a disgusting opportunist and racist, and it is not inconceivable that a person would seize on such an occasion to get a loved one off the hook: no, what is revolting is the film’s callous way of introducing this topic as a juicy twist in its completely superficial, made-up narrative. Marianne doesn’t exist; Harry doesn’t exist; people really do die on the trip from Syria to Europe to escape war and destitution. In October 2013 – possibly around the time of the film’s writing, given that it was shot in spring and summer 2014 – there were two big catastrophes at Lampedusa: one in which 360 people drowned, and a second that killed 34.
What does it mean to use an ongoing humanitarian crisis as a crutch in a storyline such as this? Is there a right way and a wrong way to address the topic? A Bigger Splash does not work hard enough at earning the right to talk about the deaths of refugees. Whatever the Bechdel test for people of non-white races might be, A Bigger Splash does not pass it. In one scene before the constabulary moment, Paul and Penelope are walking through the hills and find four men of colour in their path. A bizarre stand-off occurs, during which the white people and the people of colour stare each other down, before the latter beat a retreat. What the scene is supposed to mean is never quite clear because Guadagnino never emits anything like an authorial judgment on his characters. It seems that Paul and Penelope were frightened. Why? What could have happened? All that the scene does is recall passages from books written 100 and 200 years ago: A Room With A View and Emma. In the former, George Emerson, on holiday with the young and inexperienced Lucy Honeychurch, looks after her when she faints after seeing two men fight to the death in a piazza in Florence; in the latter, Frank Churchill protects Harriet when she is frightened by gypsies while taking a walk along a country lane. Here, as in these texts, the people met along a path are othered, because they are unnamed, silent, and they disappear out of our sight, no longer to reappear. They exist merely as an obstacle, and Guadagnino neither satirises nor condemns his white protagonists following this meeting.
The scene in the constabulary when Marianne seizes the chance to cast aspersions on the local migrant population, then, exists in the context of this previous scene – but the two moments do not add up to a serious discussion of a very difficult and important topic, and Marianne is not characterised in such a way that we can accept this facet of her personality. She might very well be a brutal racist; it’s entirely possible. But the film never takes a position on her as a character, never depicts her in a way that would allow us to engage with her racism; the film never quits in its love of her, rendering this moment extremely queasy. And it’s completely possible, too, to make a film about white people, about the western world, that allows for a politicised discussion of minorities. Films such as Hidden or, more recently, Eastern Boys, have shown how to integrate these stories by subverting the starting point of the film whereby the white characters are the protagonists, and show the obverse of their existence. A Bigger Splash does not do that: it occludes and others refugees, and then throws them like an afterthought into a film that is in mortifying thrall to the lustre of the one percent.