We all, at one point or another, would love the luxury of escaping; from our personal problems, our physical woes, our responsibilities, our history, or our future. The wealthy elite have this ability, at least in theory. They flit off to their villas and cabins, their homes away from home, where they might recuperate at their leisure. Such is the case in A Bigger Splash. The troubled celebrities of our story find themselves in hiding, yet incapable of escaping their past woes, or those of the world. Despite their best efforts, no one, no matter their wealth, can escape reality.
Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love follow-up, A Bigger Splash, showcases this escapism while touching on complex issues such as gender performativity, sexuality, and international conflict with subtle, understated grace and simultaneous volatility. It’s a slow burn, the kind of film that improves on each viewing, and reveals new depths the longer it stews in the foreground of your mind.
Splash focuses on aging rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton). A gender-swapped David Bowie, she’s in recovery-induced hiding with her lover and companion of six years, documentary filmmaker Paul de Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts). She recently had vocal chord surgery to help regain her failing voice. The result is that she cannot speak, both out of physician-mandated recovery instructions, and an actual inability to produce sound.
Enter Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s ex and a major music producer, and his newly discovered nubile daughter, Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson). The two impose themselves on Paul and Marianne’s recovery away from the world, while Harry plays on Marianne’s impetuous nature, urging her to sing and live hard despite her limitations. The result is an explosive clash that thrusts all manner of normalcy into a surreal atmosphere of loss.
A Bigger Splash is an erotic drama, a thriller of sorts that uses its intricate character study to fuel its intrigue. We are pulled in by the sexual escapades of our leads, as opening scenes set the tone with nude sunbathing, and silent pool-side orgasms. As Harry and Penelope arrive, the silence is broken, predominantly by Harry, who can’t seem to keep his mouth shut. The majority of the film’s dialogue is left to the men, who speak on behalf of Marianne, the mute, domesticated rock star, and Penelope, the nubile sexpot whose power is in her eyes and her hips.
But this representation of gender is conscious, depicting an exhilaratingly problematic depiction of contemporary gender roles and performativity. We are given two women left to portray the entire spectrum of female presence in society; Marianne, the ageing rock star with no voice or conceivable role in society other than to be adored, and Penelope, the youthful beauty who must use her body to get ahead, and has no concept of consequence. Her millennial approach to life seeps into the lives of her father, and his friends, poisoning things from the outside with a subtle glance and a grin.
The only other women in the film are Marianne’s maid, Clara, Harry’s friend Mireille (Aurore Clément), and her daughter Sylvie, an equally sexually charged millennial to match Penelope. We’re left with women as matriarchs, maids, sex objects, or retirees.
Marianne’s partially self-inflicted mutism suggests a perverse reality for women; that we often become mute, ourselves, in the goings on of our lives. This reinforces the archaic notion that women are meant to be seen and not heard. Marianne, the performer without a voice, is no longer relevant, so she remains silenced. This evokes thoughts of powerlessness to control ones own life, and especially ones own body.
The men serve as directors for their women, controllers of communication and dictators of thought. Paul must speak on Marianne’s behalf, and occasionally miscommunicates her needs to serve his comfort levels. Harry simply never shuts up, a non-stop barrage of stories from his rock-and-roll heyday, assaults on Paul’s sobriety, uncomfortably sexually suggestive interaction with his daughter, or outright speaking on Marrianne’s behalf. They dominate in a hyper-masculine, simultaneously homoerotic pissing contest.
Harry embodies everything Paul is not, and everything Marianne so desperately wants. Paul is a boy to her. Eager to please, and mature despite his youth, he’s still very young. Harry represents the exquisite volatility of her former life, one full of sex and drugs, no consequence and limitless power. He brings his daughter, Penelope, along as a party favor. A parlor trick of sorts to ingratiate himself to Marianne, while trying to reclaim her in her new, domesticated capacity. He sees a window of opportunity, optimal for usurping current relationships.
The notion of performativity comes into play through flashbacks to Marianne’s past, in conjunction with her present existence. “You’re pretty domesticated for a rock star,” Penelope says to Marianne, who looks almost stunned at the accusation. Guadagnino gives us a woman who redefined femininity, in reality and within the film. Tilda Swinton herself is an icon of nouveau femme chic. Her androgyny has made her intriguing to both men and women around the world. She exudes sensuality and sexuality, yet breaks with conventions of typical, preconceived norms of femininity. There’s a remarkable power in that, and Guadagnino has used this to better illustrate Marianne’s quandary and her power.
Before the arrival of Harry and Penelope, she was content to exist free of constraints. She lounges around naked with Paul, occasionally putting on a simple bathing suit to go to the beach. She wears barely-there sandals, and dresses that look as if they’ve been reconstructed out of men’s dress shirts. Upon Harry’s arrival, she resumes her performance. We watch her steadily apply more and more makeup, style her hair more, wear more feminine clothing, and perform according to her gendered norms. Where before she exuded an ambiguous power, now she oozes a distinct feminine sensuality. A-line skirts, backless blouses, plunging v-neck rompers, yellow eye shadow and a perfect liquid-lined eye. In a way, it’s as if she’s putting back on her old costume for Harry, a man who brought out her sexuality, made her want to be feminine and want to behave as an object of others’ desire, as opposed to the object of her own desire.
In the midst of all this lies a more nefarious evasion of fact. Hiding behind expensive sunglasses, our foursome frequently find themselves avoiding their own reality, and consequently the reality of the world around them. They’ve fled to this little island to recuperate. As if to think paradise exists in a vacuum. Harry’s arrival is indicative that it does not, and as the film progresses, we get subtle, whispered indications at just how much life never exists in a vacuum.
While Marianne, Paul, Harry, and Penelope are slowly waging psychological warfare on one another, Tunisian refugees are drowning in the sea as they attempt to flee towards freedom. They stay caged in refugee camps established on the island, and mourn their numerous losses. They are treated as if a tertiary thought, both to the world at large and to the plot of the film; an ugly reality no one wants to look at, but something indicative of larger problems more worthy of our attention. All the while, Marianne hides behind her voicelessness. Paul hides behind Marianne, and his addiction. Penelope hides behind her misunderstood sexuality. And Harry hides behind them all, the puppet master with dreams to deceive, and plots to ensnare.
Ultimately, we are confronted with the stark reality that our problems, our cultural obsessions with celebrity woes and drama, mean nothing. That the world is rotting, and we simply shield our eyes from what we’d rather not see; the racism still rampant in the world at large, the war and starvation, the hypocrisy and the turmoil.