sexual drama, jealousy and 'a bigger splash'

Luca Guadagnino discusses his new film, a tale of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.

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Feb 22 2016, 5:11pm

Italian director Luca Guadagnino's follow-up to 2011's I Am Love is another simmering, stylish affair, but this time is based around rock'n'roll royalty on the rugged island of Pantelleria rather than in the austere haute bourgeois world of Milan. In A Bigger Splash, sexual drama, jealousy, affection and a little hinted-at incest all play out by the pool, on the baked rocks, in the cool bedrooms and the shaded terraces of a languorous summer holiday. Not that it starts out as a jolly: rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) have escaped to the island so that Marianne can recover from a voice operation. The silence is soon shattered by the arrival of Marianne's ex-lover, the irritatingly enthusiastic Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his newly discovered daughter, the Lolita-like Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

As Harry puts it, he didn't come to the island for the capers -- he's come to try and steal Marianne back from "square bear" Paul. It's an uphill struggle though: Schoenaerts's Paul is only square in relation to the grating mania of Mick Jagger-lite Harry, and the camera makes no secret of the fact that Paul is insanely hot, lingering over his athletic, beefy, tanned body. It's good to see that the film's gaze is pansexual under Guadagnino's direction, as all four characters are pored over and sexualized in equal measure.

The film, which includes another magnificent clothing collaboration with Raf Simons (he also worked on I Am Love), is a visual treat, but elements of the story are questionable. Tilda is great in Marianne's island recovery mode, but less convincing as a female Bowie rocking out stadia in sequins. And the migrant sub-plot seems problematic, with Paul and Penelope encountering a group of men on a walk and staring them down like an alien threat. Later in the film, they're used as a moral device, but little else. That aside, it's another virtuoso mix of slow-mounting tension, beautiful camerawork and incredible style from Guadignino. We caught up with him in London to find out more.

You worked with Raf Simons on some of the wardrobe for the film.
The costume design of this film was by Giulia Piersanti. She's a fashion person, because she's designed for labels like Lanvin, Missoni and Fendi. She now does Dior Homme and Balenciaga. I wanted to run away from the concept of costume. I hate the concept of costume because it's such a missed opportunity to try and understand a character through the way they wear the garment. It's one of the tools you can use to communicate something about the character. With costume, you can end up in the field of décor. So to work with a designer became a natural path. In I Am Love, I worked with a costume designer and obliged them to deal with fashion people like Jil Sander and Raf Simons. I wanted to continue my conversation with Raf, who I reckon is one of the most inspiring creative people out there, and he went to Dior, so I started to talk with Dior and we found that we could do it together for Tilda's character.

Can you talk about any particular pieces?
The great checkered top and skirt is a remake of my own personal take on going back to Voyage to Italy by Rossellini. In that movie you have the great Ingrid Bergman, who is a silent reference that we had in mind for Marianne Lane. They came with this idea of a deranged checker. It's a wonderful way you can play with a garment without being decorative, but by instilling psychology into the character through behavior and belongings. You completely understand that this woman is a big rock star on holiday, thanks to the fantastic wardrobe.

I like that there is a sexual gaze for everyone in this film. How do you make camerawork feel sexual?
Because this is a quartet and all of them are entangled in a web of desire, the camera has to be fully erotically committed to all the bodies in the frame. It would have been horrible if the movie was deciding to indulge more on one of them than the other. I would never have done a film where Madalina Ghenea is coming into the pool and is seen from all the corners of the tits and the ass and the pussy and the legs, like you see in Youth. I would have done the same, but I would have done some shots on the cocks and limbs of the ageing men. I think a camera has to be pansexual, and when a camera is monosexual, it's horrible. But that's what happens often. Jonathan Demme always puts you in the feet of the characters. In The Silence of the Lambs, you are both Clarice and Hannibal Lector. So you are both a cannibal and you're an FBI agent. I found that so exciting when I saw that for the first time. He's a genius.

Change is a big theme in the film. Marianne is trying to change her ways, whereas Harry is relentlessly pushing on with his old lifestyle.
People can think that change is a conservative act. Some could say it's revolution. I like that you can be ambiguous about that and let the audience decide. Maybe someone will think that Marianne is a bore and that Harry is the spirit of the party. And some can think that Harry is annoying and that Marianne really needs to move on.

You brought the world's attention to the beautiful Villa Necchi Campiglio in Milan through I Am Love. Now you're doing the same for the island of Pantelleria. How important is setting to you?
I have a deal with the island of Pantelleria where they're going to pay me a percentage of every visitor. Kidding! I do believe in space as a character. Every space engages the person in the space. I don't like to use it as a passive backdrop.

And the island's strong winds play a part in the film too.
You have the Sirocco, which is a sandy, hot wind coming from Sahara, or you have Mistral, which is a fresh wind coming from the north. So there are these two conflicting winds all the time. It is relentless! In Switzerland there if the Foehn, which plays a great role in the Argento movie called Phenomena. They say it's the wind that makes you crazy and makes people want to kill each other.

Why did you choose to include the migrant sub-plot?
It's a reality of the place. They come ashore and they impact the life of the people there and their lives are impacted by the place. I wanted to see what happens when these travelers from both sides of the spectrum meet. What are the leading travelers in the movie going to make of their presence in this film? How are they going to deal with them? And that raises the ethical question at the end of the movie.

Why did you want to have Marianne in recovery from a voice operation?
This was Tilda's conceit. She felt that Marianne Lane should have been forced to communicate with everybody -- in particular with this rush of words that is Harry -- without words.

There's suggested incest in the film. Why did you decide to deal with that?
It's about boundaries and crossing boundaries and the imperative of enjoyment. It's a sort of mindlessness and superficiality. I mean the film isn't remotely about incest, of course. I believe that we're living in fairly conservative, parochial times. Every country has its own character of the nation, but because we're enveloped in this film of global capitalism, this creates a cloud of conservatism. And at the same time, there's obscene, unrestrained pornographic use. You can browse YouPorn freely, but you can't really put in jeopardy the establishment of things, like the way we're economically driven and the way we are socially constrained by roles.