With a focus on themes including jealousy, lust, and desire, a well-accomplished cast, and an intriguing story, it is no surprise that Luca Guadagnino’s film, A Bigger Splash, is already a hit. Focusing on the intersecting lives of four characters, Marianne (Tilda Swinton), Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and Penelope (Dakota Johnson), the film’s plot takes place on the island of Pantelleria where rock legend Marianne is recovering with her partner Paul. Their relaxing holiday is suddenly interrupted when Marianne’s former lover Harry arrives with his daughter Penelope, leading to old memories resurfacing and new emotions being revealed.
Last week, director Luca Guadagnino, screenwriter David Kajganich, and actors Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton sat down with Blast Magazine in New York to discuss the film’s exploration of human emotion.
Reunited with actress Tilda Swinton, director Luca Guadagnino captivates his audience yet again with a story about relationships, passion, and sexual desire. The director-actress pair previously shined with their film, I Am Love, and this project provided them another opportunity to exhibit their talents. 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 its predecessor, La Piscine gave Guadagnino a “template upon which [he] could show the interactions of characters in a passionate, yet unconventional way.”
Due to the erotic nature of the story, it is no surprise that the film contains significant nudity from all of its performers. This decision was logical to Guadagnino, as he believes 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.” Screenwriter David Kajganich agreed, noting that nudity is “an interesting way of gauging people…who is using it for provocation and who is using it for manipulation?”
One of the notable relationships in the film is between Harry and his daughter Penelope. As they have only recently reconnected, there sometimes seems to be less of a father-daughter dynamic and more of an attachment between two lovers. While audiences may question this suggestive partnership, Fiennes never felt that the connection was overly sexual, explaining that he believed Harry “enjoyed feeling that Penelope was a sexual being, but 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.”
It may be shocking to audiences to find out that Swinton made the decision to remove the majority of Marianne’s lines and speak her few remaining words in a hoarse whisper. The choice was made shortly before filming began, leaving Guadagnino and Kajganich with some very important last-minute decisions. While this may have posed an unconquerable obstacle to some, Guadagnino had no issue with the sudden change and felt that “the impossibility of firing back words coupled with the lack of vocal expression at the volcano of words that is Harry Hawkes was quite interesting.” He believed it was “a testament to the intuition that Tilda has” and that it was “irrelevant that it wasn’t in the movie before.” Similarly, Swinton felt that her decision “ramped up the volume on a story about communication and how incredibly difficult it can be.” Kajganich was also a fan of the decision and affirmed that it “built a dramatic tension every time Marianne spoke, causing the audience to lean in and wonder why she had chosen that moment to speak.”
The tension between Marianne and Harry only increases as the film progresses, prompting viewers to wonder what the ending holds for the two former lovers. While some audience members may speculate that a sexual relationship is the only intention, Kajganich presented a different view on Harry’s true objectives.
“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 on Harry’s motivations but had his own opinions on the nature of 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 sometimes seems to be a main character. During filming, the group spent over two months there and while it was sometimes difficult to acquire the desired food or navigate the roads, it was important to Guadagnino to film on an island with its own personality. When asked why he chose an island as the setting for the film, Guadagnino explained that while 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 also captivated by the destination, as she has a particular predilection for islands due to the fact that she currently resides on one in Scotland. She deeply understands the struggles that come along with this style of living, 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 is that understanding of the people and environment that surrounds them that makes Guadagnino and Swinton such a talented pair. They both add a relatable texture to their projects, focusing on relationships rather than theatrics. An example of this can be seen in the film when a woman named Rosa prepares ricotta cheese during one of the scenes. Swinton explained that this was a real woman Guadagnino met when he went to purchase ricotta cheese while while working on the film. It added, as Swinton described it, “a real interface with the people who live there.” That genuine connection is evident in the film, as the quartet seem to 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. Swinton is a unique actress, seemingly more passionate about the development of a project than her performance in it. She greatly enjoys the process of “cooking it up around the kitchen table,” something she thought would end after Jarman’s death in 1994. However, she soon met Guadagnino and their creative collaborations have produced cinematic masterpieces ever since.
When asked about his working relationship with Swinton, Guadagnino feels that their success stems from “sharing the same vision of life and understanding 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.” Swinton is equally fond of Guadagnino, explaining that “their professional relationship is built on a close friendship and there is nothing better than figuring stuff out with your pals.” They challenge each other, evident by the last-minute decision of Swinton to remove her voice from the film. Another director might have been unable to move forward from this, but this unique pair realizes the beauty that comes from their union.
Although there are an abundance of intensely emotional and sexual scenes, the film does not neglect to include its share of light-hearted moments. One of the most memorable scenes 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’s movements.
Guadagnino knew that Fiennes was the perfect person to bring Harry Hawkes to life after seeing the trailer for the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was then that he recognized the levity that the actor was capable of. For Fiennes, the attraction to Harry came immediately. “He leapt off the page at me and I loved his provocative, mischievous, slightly demonic quality,” Fiennes explained. Most important of all, Fiennes noted, was Harry’s honesty, as he pushes the rest of the group to be genuine about who they are.
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.