How Luca Guadagnino restyled a ’60s cult film to be A Bigger Splash

Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson and Ralph Fiennes explore latent lascivious passions in remake of French classic La Piscine

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 June, 2016, 10:28am

While Hollywood has no compunction about riding roughshod over old movies and remaking them, it’s a rather different matter in the rarefied world of European cinema. Classics from the golden age of auteurs – the days of Godard, Fellini and Bergman – are perhaps too singular to ever be attempted again. Who would dare rework or Persona? They tried it with Godard’s Breathless; the 1983 erotic effort starring Richard Gere was an unmitigated disaster.

So it’s no surprise Italian director Luca Guadagnino was hesitant when French-based Studio Canal approached him to take on Jacques Deray’s 1969 movie, La Piscine. “I thought ‘Why and how should I remake it?’” he says. Fortunately, Deray’s film, which starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin, is more cult than classic. When Guadagnino looked at it again, he found a way in. “I thought it was about desire, so that was the hook for me.”

Also a subject Guadagnino undertook in his celebrated 2009 film I Am Love – which starred Tilda Swinton as a Russian émigré married into a Milanese industrial clan – the set-up for La Piscine allows for latent, lascivious passions to be fully explored. Relocating the original story from St. Tropez to the more remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria, A Bigger Splash borrows Deray’s template as an off-the-grid couple’s tranquillity is shattered by the arrival of an ex and his daughter.

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“I don’t see it as a remake. It was a source of inspiration. We were not trying to recreate that very film,” argues Belgium-actor Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), who plays Paul, a recovering alcoholic and documentary filmmaker based on the character originally played by Delon. “I didn’t want to burden myself with the idea that I had to replace Alain Delon. You can’t replace Alain Delon. Forget about it. I didn’t want to go there.”

When the film begins, he’s sunning himself with his older partner, Swinton’s Marianne Lane, a former glam-rock star who is recuperating from vocal surgery that has left her voice a virtual whisper. Trouble comes in the shape of Lane’s ex Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his offspring Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

The bearded, Bacchanalian Harry – a record producer for the Rolling Stones in his time – arrives like a force of nature, a self-destructive hedonist whose incessant chatter makes up for Marianne’s near-silence. As for Penelope, with just a bikini and a sultry smile protecting her modesty, it’s like she’s stepped off the pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Guadagnino admits that he admires Nabokov’s novel and the resulting Stanley Kubrick movie, albeit with reservations. “I think the movie by Kubrick is a cruel film. In a way, it’s about the game of the man. Lolita is a sort of mirror dream. In this case, she’s not a Lolita, she’s a girl, she’s Penelope, she’s there and she’s actually manipulating.”

Far removed from the naïve innocent from the Fifty Shades of Grey movie that made her famous, Johnson was uncertain playing such a provocateur. Not long after the wardrobe fitting, she “freaked out”.

“I didn’t think I could do it,” Johnson explains. “I felt like I didn’t have enough time to develop a character as wonderful as this. I didn’t want to damage it and I didn’t want to f*** it up. I thought I was going to be wasting everyone’s time. And then Ralph and Tilda talked me off a ledge. I was terrified… I didn’t want to ruin it.”

With Harry also trying to charm his way into Marianne’s life, the result is a film full of dormant passions bubbling to the surface, making the rugged setting of Pantelleria absolutely perfect. “I’ve never seen anywhere like it,” admits Johnson.

“It’s visually quite rough. It’s made of mostly volcanic rock and the architecture is Arab. You get hot winds coming from Africa and you get cool winds coming from Sicily, and when the wind blows the energy shifts and things change. And people’s moods change.”

For Guadagnino, the setting was a vital framework for this story. “I believe that the place is a great indication of the story you want to say. This movie was a chance to talk about a suffocating circle of desire; a quadrangular inescapable playfield of desire. But it was imperative that this did not remain within a space that was neutral or less powerful than the quartet. Actually, it was important to me that the space was a space of tough, violence and relentlessness. And Pantelleria had these qualities to it.”

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Johnson’s appearance aside, the thing to make the biggest splash, so to speak, when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year was Fiennes’ disco-dancing. The usually buttoned-up British actor cuts loose magnificently in a scene where he’s grooving to the Stones’ Emotional Rescue.

“Ralph is such a peculiar, detail-oriented actor that he really needed to be designing that performance. So he worked for very months with a choreographer,” says Guadagnino. “I like that people think it’s completely improvised when it’s not.”

Harry even regales his companions with a well-worn tale about his involvement in the recording of the Stones’ Voodoo Lounge album. “We had to have this character to bring the energy but also to bring the nostalgia that you don’t have any more,” adds the director.

“Don’t forget that you have a younger character, Penelope, who is basically alien to this, and does not have a link to this history of time. And he’s showing off to her. We wanted, as well, the spirit and the essence of rock’n’roll and The Rolling Stones to infuse the movie at large.”

The sort of sizzling, sun-kissed film that can give you a tan just by watching it, Schoenaerts admits the shoot had that feeling of being on holiday. “To some extent it was – because that’s part of what the story tells. Of course that is an aspect of our day-to-day life as we shot the film. Then again, we worked. But it felt like a holiday as well.” The experience left him in full admiration for his co-stars. “It’s a great bunch, right? Tilda, Ralph, Dakota. It’s Champions League!”

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The only thing Guadagnino seems averse to are comparisons to This Must be The Place, the film by his fellow countryman Paolo Sorrentino, which similarly dealt with a fading rock star out of time and place. “I don’t know if it’s an obsession of Italian cinema,” he shrugs.

“I wasn’t thinking: ‘Let’s make a movie about celebrities.’ I think it’s about the public persona and the private persona, and the fracture between them. It’s about reinventing yourself. It’s about choices – what do you become?”

A Bigger Splash opens on June 16

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