Jealousy, intrigue and lust: three components abounding in this story about the adventures of Marianne, Paul, Harry and Penelope on the island of Pantelleria.
Last week, director Luca Guadagnino, screenwriter David Kajganich and actors Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton sat down with Blast in New York to discuss their latest project, A Bigger Splash, and the powerful emotions each character in the film has towards one another.
Reunited with actress Tilda Swinton, director Luca Guadagnino captivates his audience yet again with another story of relationships, passion and sexual desire. The duo previously shined as a creative pair while working on I am Love and A Bigger Splash is no different. Armed with an incredible cast, including Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, Guadagnino has not only helped to create another fascinating performance for Swinton but has also mesmerized his viewers with an updated version of the 1969 Jacques Deray film, La Piscine. While Guadagnino was not a fan of the original film as a young man, he loved that it was a story about relationships and the complexities of human beings. Although this film is far different than the original, La Piscine gave Guadagnino a template upon which he could show the interactions of characters in a “passionate, yet unconventional way.”
In this version of the story, Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a David Bowie-esque rock star, who has chosen to relax away from her adoring fans while she recovers from a vocal operation. She travels to the volcanic island of Pantelleria with her lover Paul (Schoenaerts) with the intention of having a quiet, tranquil getaway. However, their peaceful retreat is interrupted when Marianne’s old friend and ex-lover Harry Hawkes (Fiennes) arrives with his newly-found daughter Penelope (Johnson). His intentions initially unclear, Harry begins to drive a potential wedge in between Marianne and Paul and the four characters become entangled in a web of sexual tension and questionable actions.
Due to the erotic nature of the story, it is of no surprise that the film contains significant nudity from all of its performers. This decision was based upon Guadagnino’s belief that when creating a film about desire, “you have to take into consideration the bodies and the fact that we are all made out of the desire we feel for others.” Kajganich agreed and clarified that nudity is “an interesting way of gauging people…who is using it for provocation, who is using it for manipulation?”
A notable aspect to the film is the very suggestive relationship between Harry and his daughter Penelope. As he has only recently reconnected with her, there sometimes seems to be less of a father-daughter dynamic and more of an attachment between two lovers. However, Fiennes didn’t feel that the connection was overly sexual, explaining that he thought Harry “enjoyed feeling that Penelope was a sexual being, but he wasn’t trying to be physical with her in a sexual sense.” “It’s all in that sort of grey area where you can think things but not necessarily act on them,” Fiennes added, “but I think he’s oddly enough quite protective of her.”
One of the most shocking facts when learning about this film was discovering that it was Swinton’s decision to remove the majority of her lines and speak her few remaining words in a hoarse whisper. This choice was made shortly before filming began, leaving Guadagnino and Kajganich to make important last-minute decisions on the restructuring on the film. However, Guadagnino had no qualms about this late addition and felt that “the impossibility of firing back words and the lack of vocal expression at the volcano of words that is Harry Hawkes was quite interesting.” “It’s a testament to the intuition that she has and it’s irrelevant that it wasn’t in the movie before,” Guadagnino declared. Similarly, Swinton felt that her decision was a way of “ramping up the volume on this story about communication and how incredibly difficult that can be.” She was incredibly grateful that Kajganich and Guadagnino were supportive of the decision and believes it made the film that much stronger. Kajganich was a huge fan of the decision and affirmed that “it built a dramatic tension every time she spoke, causing the audience to lean in a little more and wonder why Marianne had chosen this moment to speak.”
The tension between Marianne and Harry only grows as the film continues, prompting the viewer to wonder what exactly will be the ending for these two former lovers. While some audience members may speculate on the status of their sexual relationship, Kajganich presented a different view on the matter, analyzing Harry’s true objectives, rather than just his discernible conversations.
“Harry is someone who I think is really afraid of becoming irrelevant, not only to the world and musicians, but to these people as well…Paul was his best friend, Marianne was the woman he probably was genuinely in love with and he’s becoming less and less relevant. I think that’s so much worse than not getting to sleep with Marianne…to me, that’s what the film ended up being about…not the intrigues of who is sleeping with who but the idea that these people are doing whatever they can to stay relevant to one another and keep their claims on each other emotionally alive.”
Fiennes agreed with Kajganich’s commentary but added his own opinion on his character’s connection to Marianne.
“The friendship with Marianne was big and deep and Harry can’t really let go of that. In life, we have urges and we want to see someone and feel them again, not just their bodies, but their presence and their friendship. There’s always a question of can we reclaim them and do we want to. Perhaps Harry had the power in their relationship as the creator, producer and manager of her music, but now she’s empowered herself with a new relationship and doesn’t need him. At some level, he wants to be in the power play.”
The setting of the film, the volcanic island of Pantelleria, is such an integral part of the story that it is almost a main character. The group spent over two months filming there and while it was sometimes difficult to acquire the food desired or navigate the roads, it was important to film the project on an island with its own personality and adventure. When asked why he chose an island as the setting for the film, Guadagnino explained that while the movie presents a “quartet of people who are drawn to one another and solely invested in their own problems, there is also this island where nature is so relentless and the sense of urgency is so high that the power of reality is knocking at their doors.” Swinton was captivated by the island, as she has a particular predilection for islands due to her current residence on one in Scotland. She understands the struggles that come along with that living choice as “the wind never stops and you’re completely at the mercy of the weather…if it blows too much, you aren’t going to get food from the boats.”
It’s that understanding of the people that surround them and the environment they are present in that makes Guadagnino and Swinton such a talented and creative pair. They add a relatable texture to their projects, focusing on relationships rather than theatrics. In this film, there is a scene where a woman named Rosa is preparing ricotta. Swinton explained that this was a real woman Luca met while preparing the film when he went to get ricotta. It added, as Swinton described it, “a real interface with the people who live there.” That connection is evident in the film, making the quartet seem like genuine travelers to the island rather than actors transplanted to their new location.
Swinton is no stranger to collaborative relationships. Prior to meeting Guadagnino, she worked closely with director Derek Jarman who led her onto her current cinematic path. Swinton is a unique actress, as she is more passionate about the developing of a project than her performance in it. She enjoys “cooking it up around the kitchen table and working with people,” something she thought would end after Jarman’s death in 1994. Soon after, however, she met Guadagnino and their creative collaborations have produced incredible cinematic pieces since. When asked about his working relationship with Swinton, Guadagnino feels that their success stems from the fact that they “share the same vision of life and understand each other at a glance.” He spoke fondly of her, praising her filmmaking and artistry skills and noting that “she is full of surprises and never gives the same result from film to film.” She feels the same way about him and is glad that their “professional relationship is built on a close friendship, as there is nothing better than figuring stuff out with your pals.” They challenge each other, evident by the last-minute decision of Tilda to remove her voice from the film. A typical director-actor duo may have been unable to move forward from this, both adamant that their ideas were best for the film. However, this pair realizes the beauty that comes from their union and it allows them to flourish creatively in ways previously unanticipated.
Although there are both intense and deeply sexual scenes, A Bigger Splash does not neglect to include its share of light-hearted moments. One of the most memorable scenes from the film is Fiennes’ dance to “Emotional Rescue” by The Rolling Stones. Although he admitted he “can get silly on the dance floor,” Fiennes worked with a choreographer to feel more confident in his body and movements. His new confidence was evident in the fun Fiennes recalls having while shooting the scene as well as the expressions of the audience while watching it.
Guadagnino knew that Fiennes was the perfect person to make Harry Hawkes come to life after seeing the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel, where he realized the levity that the actor was capable of. He could not have been more correct. For Fiennes, it was an immediate connection to the role: “He leapt off the page at me and I loved his provocative, mischievous, slightly demonic quality.” He loved Harry’s honesty most of all, as the character pushes the rest of the group to be genuine about who they are, something Fiennes feels is crucial in this story.
Audiences will be able to enjoy Johnson and Swinton’s collaboration with Guadagnino next in his new take on the horror film Suspiria, which Guadagnino hopes will be “the scariest movie for this generation.” Fiennes is currently in rehearsals for Richard III in London, where he will play the titular role in the Shakespearean drama.

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Madeline Knutson is a Blast correspondent

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