By Gabrielle Marceau
Harry sits at the bottom of the pool, slumped over himself with his back curled as if in resignation or exhaustion. In fact, the last breath of his life was fiercely defended and only snatched by force. Harry died in Marianne’s pool, and so, it seems, did rock and roll. That may sound dramatic, but A Bigger Splash isn’t afraid of a little drama.
A soft body lays itself down on rough, rust colored rock. The land is harsh, but so is hooking up with your father’s ex girlfriend’s lover. If you’re going to do a bad thing, might as well let it hurt. ‘We are all obscene’ were Harry’s last words. He said them to Paul, who likes to think he’s the least obscene of the bunch. And that might have been true until he fucked a teenager on sharp rocks under a burning sun.
Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives uninvited to the Italian Island, Pantelleria, with Penelope (Dakota Johnson), a blond who is most likely his daughter. Harry is all about pleasure, and the island offers it. What is doesn’t offer is any shade or shelter, which is also fine because Harry intends to lay things bare. He’s come to ambush his ex, Marianne (Tilda Swinton), and drive her new boyfriend, Paul (Mathias Shoenaerts), up the wall. Tilda Swinton is a little too healthy and glowing to be credible as a Bowie-esque mega star with a former drug problem. But the casting does beg the question: if there had never been a David Bowie would Tilda Swinton have had to become a rock star?
Marianne and Penelope are irresistible in the way that gravity operates on a pendulum. One wears Forever 21 and one wears custom Raf Simons. One is famously cool and one is just young, but that is dangerous enough. Penelope tells Marianne that she is pretty domesticated for a rock star and you must admit that Dior isn’t very rock and roll.
Halfway through the film, Harry plays Emotional Rescue and dances with such fierce abandon he needs to break out of the house and onto the roof to meet the unrelenting sun. Both are hungry and unreasonable forces. (It makes sense that Paul has to wait until the cover of night to murder Harry). It made me think of the first Rolling Stones song I ever heard, one whose effect on my psyche was like a seismic shift.
Gimme Shelter was written in 1969 - the year of Manson, Stonewall, Woodstock (or more to the point, Altamont), and of an anti war movement that was reaching a fever pitch. “That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse.” Jagger said. And it sounds like it, with Jagger’s harmonica riff that recalls a war horn and a car crash at once, and Merry Clayton’s eviscerating wail - "rape, murder, it’s just a shot away". A Bigger Splash takes place far away from the violence and unrest of 1969. But then again there’s the inherent violence of four good looking people trapped on an island. There’s also the violence of a placid frame, which contains an unknown that begs to be revealed.
The title of A Bigger Splash is taken from David Hockney’s 1967 painting of the same name. Hockney was living out a kind of subversive leisure in California; which is another way to say queer and well-off. The figure in the painting is obscured by it’s own splash, a wild disturbance in an otherwise tranquil landscape. Director Luca Guadagnino: “With his painting, A Bigger Splash, Hockney created this incredible mystery: the mystery of desire, the mystery of sexuality, the metaphor of this broken surface under which you don’t know what’s looming. There’s a phantom in the painting.” There’s also a body in the pool. Funny how the word body changes that way.
There's another source of agitation on the island. Groups of refugees from Tunisia arrive on the shores (although many don't arrive at all) and their presence is treated as a threat to Pantelleria's stillness, and its wealthy white sojourners. They are an ominous reminder that just because there is no war does not mean there is peace. I do not intend to suggest the refugees are a metaphor for the struggles of our primary characters, but rather that they set them in sharp contrast with the world outside their villa. When Marianne sells out a group that has recently been detained to deflect suspicion from Paul, she cements her place on the side of those that in their leisure, inflict extraordinary violence.
I frequently lament the dearth of real rock stars in an era where pop has captured so much critical attention (because it has gotten really good). It was when I heard Yeezus that I thought, oh yes, there are still rock stars, except now they are Kanye West. (He knows it too and repurposed Metallica's imagery for his tour merch). Who else has the same aggressive bravado and hedonism, who else is making popular music that thrilling and dangerous? Hip Hop artists are more exciting, brash, and relevant than any current rock band I can think of. Beyonce’s recent track Don’t Hurt Yourself off of the operatic Lemonade is the best rock performance I've heard in years, her voice is as gutting and gorgeous as Joplin’s once was. All this is true. So then, what’s missing?
What A Bigger Splash offers isn’t simply rock music, but a rock scene - an embodied and present bohemia in a time when artists cluster and create online. You could be part of a rock star’s world - they were better than us but not untouchable. For all the raw energy in her work you could never party with Beyonce. She prioritizes privacy and health, a smart move in a celebrity culture that devours the unguarded. And for all his bluster, Kanye leads what seems like a happy, boring life in Hidden Hills, CA with his wife and children.
The only thing on the island more oppressive than the weather is their lust. Eventually each of them succumb to each other. Every new indiscretion is heralded by the land - a fierce wind, a frenzy of cicadas. The island itself is teeming with some phantom energy, a heat that remains from the long dormant volcano. “I’m the burning bush, I’m the burning fire, I’m the bleeding volcano.” Jagger sings in She's So Cold, a track off of the record Harry dances to, the one found with him at the bottom of that pool. Penelope is so cold, she lies and manipulates with no apparent motive, but she melts into hot tears once Paul and Marianne are out of sight. Rock and roll orphaned many girls, exhausted by too much fun. You have to be smart to get out, bruised and sunburnt, but alive.