Why the swimming pool is the real star of A Bigger Splash

A shallow body of water harbours deep emotions in Luca Guadagnino’s scintillating Sicilian drama.


Nick Chen

If a modern Narcissus were to fall in love with his watery reflection, it would be by a private swimming pool and quite possibly shot by Luca Guadagnino. In the Italian director’s new film, A Bigger Splash, whenever the characters gaze at the shimmering surface of an outside pool what they are really admiring is their own image – four easy-going hedonists with enough time and money to afford such luxury.

Rather than reboot Greek mythology, A Bigger Splash is a loose reimagining of Jacques Deray’s erotic drama from 1969, La Piscine. Here the swimming pool is a pit of wonder in which desire and lust are transmitted like electricity through the water. In many ways it is the main attraction – some feat when up against Ralph Fiennes moving like Jagger, Tilda Swinton as a mute rock star, Dakota Johnson channelling Jane Birkin and Matthias Schoenaerts being Matthias Schoenaerts.

From the get-go, the swimming pool serves as the lifeblood of A Bigger Splash. The naked bodies of Swinton and Schoenaerts lay dormant as the water gently laps the edge of the frame. Taking a dip is akin to flirting, and when the party’s over Schoenaerts remarks that, “swimming can take it out of you.” Holidaying in Pantelleria, a secluded volcanic island in southern Italy, the four pleasure-seekers are within walking distance of the Mediterranean, but prefer their chlorinated sanctuary.

Of course, swimming pools have a long history of scene-stealing in cinema – just think of the jet-bubble action in Showgirls; the threesome in Wild Things; Jesse Eisenberg’s accidental arousal in Adventureland; Bill Murray returning to the womb in Rushmore; the masturbatory fantasies of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and boundary breaking Y Tu Mama También.

At these private paradises, running and heavy petting are encouraged, but the dress code is up for grabs. Ralph Fiennes’ music producer in A Bigger Splash is established as someone who swims naked without embarrassment – a source of contention in 2015’s The Overnight, where Jason Schwartzman is insulted by Adam Scott’s insistence on wearing shorts. Or it could swing the other way as with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, weighed down by scuba gear and shoved underwater by his parents.

A stadium-filling singer recovering from vocal surgery, Swinton’s Marianne Lane doesn’t mind if her recuperation carries an aftertaste of chlorine. The pool offers all the comfort of a giant bathtub, as it does in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours: Blue when a grieving Juliette Binoche also wishes not to speak – front crawl is therapeutic enough. The same goes in the case of both The Big Bad Swim, in which adults paddle through midlife crises in a beginner’s swimming class, and The Way He Looks which features a blind protagonist who feels safer in the water.

When drained, the swimming pool is an uncomfortable sight (albeit one filled with schadenfreude) which A Bigger Splash poignantly recognises as an intuitive sign of human failure. In Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End, the dry pool shapes John Moulder-Brown’s failed romance with Jane Asher, who is blackmailed and trapped inside a leisure centre’s chasm. And in Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, the empty space serves as a reminder of Sean Penn’s dried-up rock ’n’ roll career.

At times, A Bigger Splash plays like a giallo showreel, its waters running hot with peril and cold with pathos. Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which Guadagnino is set to remake with Swinton and Jonson, even has its own swimming pool scene – a late-night calm before the supernatural storm. Other teen horrors like It Follows and Kristy set their climaxes at school facilities, conjuring up anxious memories of being half-naked in front of a crush, or being sneered at by your peers. In A Bigger Splash, though, the swimming is the real star – a blue ball of energy overflowing with sexual tension, petty jealousies and familiar sinking feelings.

Published 8 Feb 2016

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