A Bigger Splash: escapism, isolation, and the spaces between us

A Bigger Splash, David Hockney, 1968

Isolation and escapism are two sides of the same coin. The desire to leave your known world and venture beyond your own reality; to remake and reshape yourself in the privacy of a sacred space; to reconnect with your own ideals away from the noise of the city is a desire that speaks to a need for freedom and serenity that is in some way universal. Fleeting though that desire may be, escapism is rooted in the human condition.

The other side, the underside perhaps, is isolation. In small doses, isolation can feel euphoric, it can feel like an escape, like freedom (ever been in a sensory deprivation tank? that’s the feeling I’m talking about). But untethered and unchecked, it’s also that feeling of being locked out of a world you seek to inhabit.

Hockney’s work straddles the line between escapism and isolation so deftly that it is sometimes difficult to know when one becomes the other. Perhaps this is the point. It’s this ambiguity that feeds into Luca Guadagino’s 2015 film A Bigger Splash. Whilst A Bigger Splash is a very faithful remake of Jaques Deray’s La Piscine (1969), it feels as though the Guadagnino took more inspiration from David Hockney’s 1968 painting of the same name (pictured).

Looking at Hockney’s pieces from the 1960s and 70s, you can sense the slowing of time, moments that happen in a blink of an eye — ;; the crash of an artificial wave as someone dives into their pool are crystallised and made permanent in his paintings. His focus on people caught in moments of stillness is remarkable. People are seldom truly together in Hockney’s works and it’s this sense of isolation that sticks with the viewer, leaving them feeling curiously voyeuristic, as though they are interrupting a moment of personal escapism.

Like with Hockney’s paintings, the film, A Bigger Splash, feels remote. This is no accident, as one of the major themes of the film is escapism. Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a rock-star who has lost her voice, and her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker and recovering alcoholic, are both retreating from the world. Together they shut out the chaos of reality and create their own idyllic universe on the remote Italian island of Pantelleria.

The opening shot of metal piping, harsh and cold, panning down to an obviously emotionally and physically drained Marianne, dressed in a sequinned catsuit walking backstage alone towards her audience — a filled out stadium chanting her name — feels impersonal. Compare this to the scene following immediately after: Marianne and Paul, nude and sunbathing beside their pool. Birds and cicadas can be heard in the background. Red flowers and green trees frame the pool. In two shots, Guadagnino tells us all we need to know: their lives before were cold, and despite the crowds of adoring fans, impersonal, and lonely; it’s in isolation that they’ve found peace.

When they are in each other’s company, and away from the too loud, too busy, too demanding world, they are content. The bright, sunny colour palette of the film highlights this. That Guadagnino was inspired by Hockney is evident not only in the decision to rename the adaptation but in the fact that the Italian villa and swimming pool that become the central hub of tension and action within the film are strikingly similar to the Los Angeles home depicted in Hockney’s own painting. Indeed, many of the film’s locations look as though they were inspired by the artist’s uniquely pared-down, minimalist style. The meandering shots at the beginning of the film of tucked away, sun-bleached, white houses and gloriously blue pools and lagoons that usually only have a single occupant at any given time are incredibly reminiscent of Hockney’s paintings of LA poolsides and beaches.

When Hockney relocated for a final time to Los Angeles in 1976, he commented that ‘the climate is sunny, the people are less tense than in New York … When I arrived I had no idea if there was any kind of artistic life there and that was the least of my worries.’ The same rings true for Marianne and Paul in Pantelleria. One gets the impression that even if Marianne’s voice returned, she wouldn’t want to go back to her old world of noise and discord, and that is where the tension lies. Unlike a painting, where one moment is suspended forever, and the quiet can stretch until the canvas crumbles, life in A Bigger Splash has to continue, and the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s former lover and his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson) restarts the clock that Marianne and Paul put a pause on.

With Harry and Penelope, the outside world creeps in. Harry brings a vitality and energy that turns the idyllic dreamworld Marianne and Paul have created for themselves into a riot of colour and action. Though Guadagnino is careful never to change the colour palette, the bucolic backdrop of Marianne and Paul’s own personal fantasy becomes frantic and aggressive when Fiennes’ manic, passive-aggressive and jealous, but also seductively charming Harry makes his appearance.

It isn’t only the colour palette that alludes to Hockney’s work. Solitude seeps into Hockney’s paintings, which predominantly feature vibrant landscapes devoid of people. When they do feature, they are rarely the focus: they’re often seen from a distance, or their presence is merely hinted at. Negative space in Hockney’s work both draws the viewer in whilst simultaneously pushing them out. Whilst A Bigger Splash is a film about relationships, both the good and bad, the easy and complicated, Guadagnino and Yorick Le Saux, the head cinematographer, focus on the space between the characters. How each character feels towards each other is shown in the distance between them.

This use of space and the environment of the home is brilliant in its simplicity, allowing for so much more to be said without the need for dialogue. The relationship that the film has with negative space and what that space says about the characters’ relationships with one another is perhaps best shown in two different scenes with Penelope and Marianne and Paul. In both, Penelope is the only one in the pool, surrounded by water. She is unreachable. With Marianne, Penelope makes no effort to breach this gap, and so the water acts a metaphor for their lack of understanding and lack of desire to understand each other, yet in the scene with Paul, she swims to the edge of the pool, a challenge for him to join her. It’s a seduction.

Hockney’s influence shines throughout this film, from the colour imagery to the execution of the camera angles and cinematography. The themes of escapism and isolation intertwine heavily in both Hockney’s work and Guadagnino’s expertly crafted film, creating a film that feels like it could perhaps be hanging in a gallery. Though where you might feel voyeuristic viewing Hockney’s paintings, Guadagnino’s film makes you complicit. You are, in some ways, like Harry and Penelope, an interloper and an intruder on a simpler existence. Through watching, you bear witness to the undoing of escapism and solitude; the shattering of an illusion, the moment after the splash, which Hockney never aimed to capture.

Just tryna figure things out ya know

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