Talking 'A Bigger Splash' :: Desire & Jealousy in the Mediterranean Sun

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday May 17, 2016

In 1969, French filmmaker Jacques Deray made "La Piscine" ("The Swimming Pool"), a cool cinematic curio starring French superstars (and then lovers) Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. The film was a big box office hit in France, but today is often dismissed as one of those odd, angsty European art films (the kind that Angelina Jolie paid homage to in last year's misunderstood "By the Sea.")

The basic plot of "La Piscine" focuses on a writer (Delon) and his lapsed journalist girlfriend (Schneider) on holiday on the Côte d'Azur. Their vacation is disrupted by the arrival of an old record-producer friend with his newly discovered teen daughter. Tensions both emotional and sexual mount, and tragedy strikes.

Fox Searchlight and Studiocanal have remade the film under the deft guidance of director Luca Guadagnino ("I Am Love"), with stars Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson.

More Multi-Faceted

Schoenaerts and Swinton are Paul and Marianne, now filmmaker and rock star. Fiennes plays Marianne's ex-lover Harry in a tour de force performance that should earn him awards attention.

Screenwriter David Kajganich has taken the basic premise of the original film and fashioned an engaging and more multi-faceted look at envy, desire, possessiveness and self-sabotage.

"Luca wanted thematically for this to be really about revolutions in people's lives, and whether they are in control of them or not," Kajganich says. "I don't think Luca was very moved by the original film, so he was trying to figure out how one could remake it so it was more interesting and subversive somehow."

Guadagnino chose Kajganich, despite his few screenwriting credits ("True Story," being his most significant). "He was reading screenplays for other directing jobs and came across a couple of scripts of mine that were floating around and very generously ignored my IMDB credits and thought, maybe this guy would be interested in doing a project like this from a different angle than anyone would expect," Kajganich explained.

"So he sent me the film ("La Piscine") and I watched it, and I didn't get it either. I thought: This is a kind of fashion piece. I don't know what this film is even about. And I was candid with him about that on the phone and he was like, 'Well that's what I was hoping you would say.' (laughs) So we agreed that we weren't going to fetishize the original. We can take the basic premise of it and build something new and interesting, to us, out of the basic structure of it. And that's what we did."

A Fruitful Collaboration

For Kajganich, Guadagnino's creative process proved ideal. "If I were designing the best possible process from a screenwriting point of view, it would be this one. Once I came on board, Luca was in Los Angeles for the Golden Globes for when 'I Am Love' was up, and he stayed for a month. We spent every day together just talking about the film before I started writing a word... (It was) the birth of a friendship, too."

The helmer and scribe wanted to explore a slew of themes that included jealousy, sexual yearning and attraction, as well as communication or lack thereof, and weave them all together in one ambitious motion picture.

"We knew these characters once we understood how bold they could be as fictional creations," Kajganich explains. "And setting them into these dynamics of desire and jealousy and protectiveness -- and everybody essentially looking for the same thing, which is a kind of honest way to be in the world. And just failing left and right. We really stepped into the ambiguity of these characters as well, and decided up front that we weren't interested in answering a lot of the questions maybe that normally a film would feel obliged to answer for an audience. But we found it more interesting to leave a lot of them open. So what you get is a film more interested in the questions than it is the answers."

A Shared Sensibility

Ambiguity is no stranger to the director's work, which includes "The Protagonists" and "The Love Factory," as well as "I Am Love," all three starring Swinton.

The two have developed a deep friendship. Swinton shares, "We go on journeys together, garden alongside one another. We talk about the cinema we're interested in, talk about the life we're interested in, and share a kind of a palette, shared conversation and shared sensibility. We're closer and closer, all the time."

The director adds, "She's a phenomenal filmmaker with significant contribution to the whole. It would be reductive to talk about Tilda and say 'a great actress.' Tilda is an intellectual. Tilda is a great cineaste. For us to work together means the joy of being together and the joy of creating something that may move people."

One of the key changes to Kajganich's original character conceptions actually came about because of Swinton.

"When Tilda came on board we had a long conversation about the character of Marianne,' Kajganich recalls. "Originally, the character was conceived as a (British) actress. She was on the island on vacation, practicing an American accent... But then Tilda made a very good point: Doesn't it make more sense for this character to be more in Harry's world than in Paul's? So why don't we start to think of her as a musician. And that opened up a lot of exciting opportunities, one of which was, well, if she is a singer, she could have had a vocal cord surgery and be precluded from talking. And wouldn't that be the ultimate frustration for Harry, to arrive ready to seduce Tilda's character and get Marianne back, only to find out she can't spar with him in the way that they used to?"

Didn't Want to Talk at All

Swinton expounds, "I didn't want to play an actress, and I didn't really want to talk at all. I then proposed this idea of being a rock star that lost her voice."

Kajganich: "That was a very bold idea, and it came fairly late in the process. But it's a credit to Luca and Tilda to feel that kind of daring that late in the process. And everyone let me go off and figure out how to make it work on the page. And, of course, there were conversations with Tilda, negotiating if she is to say a few lines, let's really talk about which lines they should be, and why she should say them."

Swinton's performance is all the more fascinating because she must convey most of what she is thinking and feeling through her facial expressions.

Schoenaerts and Fiennes, however, deliver masterful turns via speech as well as by other means, including a refreshing daring when it comes to exposing themselves, figuratively and literally.

"These parts were designed to have a complicated effect on an audience," the writer relates. "We were not interested in judging these characters. And these characters do some fairly desperate things in this film, fairly unflattering things in a lot of ways. They're not built to reassure (the audience). And I'm always astonished that actors of the caliber of Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton feel energized by these kinds of parts instead of made nervous by it. Ralph does a lot of things in this film that I find extraordinary. He's vulnerable in a way, in terms of what he's willing to do onscreen, what he's willing to show onscreen. I find it mesmerizing. I'm so appreciative that this cast decided to take the kinds of risks that this film takes."

Full Frontal

Those "risks" include full frontal nudity for the actors. But more provocative is how the film dares to depict male sensuality in a way that arguably, hasn't been seen since Ken Russell's landmark film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's "Women in Love" (scripted by Larry Kramer).

This was deliberate on Kajganich's part. "There is a way in which nudity has a currency in this film. In some ways, in certain moments, it's about being so comfortable with one another you don't need clothes. In other moments, it's about provoking one another. In other moments, it's about trying to seduce one another. We didn't have any double standard about it. Once you make the decision that you're going to write the film around how the characters would really behave toward one another, and then worry about the audience experience of that later, then all of these things run over any expectations you would have about a film like this. It was really liberating to know that, with these particular people, all bets were off."

A fifth main character in the film is the strikingly gorgeous volcanic island of Pantelleria, an Italian island off the coast of Sicily, where the entire film is set.

"We knew from the beginning that Luca wanted to set the film there, the screenwriter offers. "It's a fantastic choice for the film. It's a very complicated place. Where it sits in the Mediterranean means it has these two very different identities. One is that it's a kind of a vacation perch for very wealthy people like Giorgio Armani. And on the other hand, it is the first obstacle for refugees trying to flee North Africa and get to mainland Europe. So you have these two elements colliding on that island in a very quiet, but pretty profound, way."

Atypical of major studio productions, Kajganich was on set every day of the shoot. He explains: "One of the reasons why that proved helpful is that we were trying to pull elements of the real life of Pantelleria into the shoot. And the best way to do that is to have the writer there and be able to take things that you're running across in your daily business on the island, and get them into the scenes as quickly as possible. So it was a fantastic opportunity, and I think it really helped that island become a character in the film, because we had enough bandwidth to be able to pull it in as it was happening."

"A Bigger Splash" is in limited release.

Watch the trailer:

Frank J. Avella is a film and theatre journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep. Frank is a recipient of a 2019 International Writers Retreat Residency at Arte Studio Ginestrelle (Assisi, Italy), a 2018 Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Helene Wurlitzer Residency Grant and a 2015 NJ State Arts Council Fellowship Award. He is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW, FIG JAM, VATICAN FALLS) and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild.