Since arriving in London I’ve seen two films. The contrast between them seems to encapsulate the problems of scale and ambition that British cinema faces. One is Stephen FIngleton’s The Survivalist. A worthy, sturdy piece of filmmaking which seems entrapped by its simplicity, resolutely refusing to lend any kind of global dimension to its post-apocalyptic landscape, no matter how effectively plotted and filmed it is. A film that leaves with you with the feeling of something austere and underwhelming. The other was Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, nominally an Italian film, but more of a pudding, featuring Brits, Americans, Italians a Belgian and, somewhat awkwardly, immigrants from undisclosed African countries.
For all its imperfections, and there are a few, including the final flawed 20 minutes, A Bigger Splash is an engrossing film, marked by its very ambition as a distinctive piece of filmmaking. The story is essentially simple, four people holed up in an idyllic Italian hideaway, with their various connections and dependencies. The outcomes are not unpredictable, (what else can happen in these circumstances apart from fucking and fighting?), but the storytelling refuses to tow an easy line, constantly kicking against the inevitability of its characters’ destinies. There is a price to pay for this inventiveness. The refugee storyline feels half-baked; there’s a hint of something Haneke-esque to be wrought from their presence on this outpost of Europe, and the one moment where Schoenaerts and Johnson are met by a group of uneasy men has potency, but in the end the strand feels like a red herring. Similarly, the final twenty minutes are a disappointment; this film should not descend into the TV mechanics of a murder enquiry. It has had too much going for it upto then.
However, these flaws are forgivable within the bigger picture. Luca Guadagnino displays the same delicate touch for the nuances of personal relationships he showed in his previous film, I Am Love. This time he pushes the characters to their limits. No more so than in a show-stopping performance by Ralph Fiennes as Harry, the verbose, larger-than-life record producer. Fiennes is one of those actors whose appeal, from the point of view of a recondite Englishman, is sometimes hard to grasp. Neither Bond-esque nor subtle enough to be a character actor. But here, he steps out of his shadow (or perhaps into it) to deliver a rip-roaring, relentlessly annoying character whose inability to control his particular lust for life leads to scenes of toe-curling embarrassment but also a weird kind of post-middle-age pathos. Why shouldn’t the self-absorbed middle-aged dads dance with the same sense of abandonment as the nubile youngsters? There’s something glorious about Harry’s refusal to bow to the rules of refinement, even if you know spending more than 15 minutes in his unedited company would be a kind of living hell. It’s a remarkable performance, which offers a counter-balance to Swinton’s more glacial Thin White Duke; allowing the two younger characters to tail the older characters like formula 1 drivers looking for the moment they’ll overtake.
As a portrayal of post-middle aged pre-dementia, Guadagnino’s film cannot be topped. Its characters parachute through the screen with the splendour and abrasiveness which is normally reserved, these days, for 3-D effects. As though the director is reminding us (and even himself, given the film’s iffy ending) that cinema is just as much about character and story as it is about visuals or coherence. That you need to take a risk if you want to achieve anything exceptional. That the straight and narrow are all very well, but they are straight and narrow and they offer scant help of emotional rescue when you are most in need of it.