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Santa Tilda, Our Lady of Transgression

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Tilda Swinton and her comrade, Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, borrow the title of their new film. A Bigger Splash, from a notable work of gay cinema, Jack Hazan’s 1973 A Bigger Splash, a documentary that revealed the inspirations of gay British artist David Hockney.

It’s so like Swinton to extend the legend of Hazan’s now little-known film into a new century. She’s England’s leading avant-pop muse and candidate for the next “Friend of Dorothy” soubriquet, earned from her commitment to such gay filmmakers as John Maybury, Isaac Julien and her original mentor Derek Jarman. As an actress, Tilda is the queen of androgyny (she memorably embodied Virginia Woolf’s pansexual ideal in Sally Potter’s 1990 film Orlando) but few modern film performers are as reliably effective, or so openly sympathetic to gay folks’ interest in exploring sexual compulsions and examining gender-based manners.  

That’s the point of Swinton and Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash where four friends merge in a psychological orgy on a Sicilian island. There’s female rock singer, Marianne Lane (Swinton), her filmmaker husband, Paul (Matthais Schoenarts), her record producer ex-lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and his teenage daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who is possibly his incestuous lover.

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Swinton and Guadagnino base their drama on Hockney’s famous 1967 painting of a Hollywood swimming pool (symbolizing luxe and untold possibility) for its mystery about risk and sensual indulgence.  Marianne’s imposed silence (she’s recovering from a throat operation) symbolizes everyone’s emotionally-charged secrets.

A Bigger Splash 2.0 uses its art lineage (Hockney’s painting was based on a photograph published in a coffee table book) to pay homage to the ‘60s European art film (Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Polanski’s Knife in the Water, although the credits specify Jacques Deray’s La Piscine). It updates upperclass sex habits and includes awareness about Europe’s latest refugee crises, but gayness is apparent in its focus on the tension of sexual behavior that hetereosexual filmmakers take for granted. Here, movie sex is seen with gay candor--as an expression of individuals’ complex psyches. (That’s what Angelina Jolie tried for in last year’s unfocussed By the Sea.)

It’s clear that Swinton and Guadagnino don’t merely solicit gay viewers (as in the gay-pandering We Need to Talk About Kevin); they want gays to think. Thinking follows swooning. Thinking follows appetite. That’s why Guadagnino’s familiar tropes are images of gourmet food and sex (same as in I Am Love, his previous Swinton partnership).

Marianne and Paul’s intimacy is threatened by Harry and Penelope’s amoral availability. “He’ll fuck you,” Marianne warns Paul about Harry. “I don’t believe in limits. We’re all obscene. We love each other anyway. That’s how it works,” Harry proclaims.

Guadagnino predicts the inevitable using Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire.” Fiennes’ horny-goat characterization (shamelessly dancing to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” during a showcase 360-degree pan) can’t match Schoenart’s hypermasculine ease as Paul whose shower scene (with water sheeting down his chest cleavage) creates a major erotic icon. He’s described as “a bear built for cuddling and hibernating with.”

But tall, thin, always-poised Tilda is built for bold, gay emotional rescue. Harry calls Marianne “an empath” and that’s what Tilda brings to the movies. She transgresses against mainstream heterosexual conventions and provides the same intensity of gay identification as such divas as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and her cultural twin David Bowie.

As Marianne she first appears on a concert stage in iridescent Bowie guise. In a later career-flashback, she rocks butch Chrissie Hynde leather. Both looks extend rock’s androgynous legacy, so it’s disappointing that she and Guadagnino don’t try for a more inventive storytelling. Instead, they go for hipster camp. A Bigger Splash and I Am Love recalls those ‘60s soap operas Portrait in Black and Midnight Lace by gay Hollywood producer Ross Hunter that were heavy on melodrama and deluxe couture.  

A Bigger Splash peaks when Marianne chooses one of her mother’s vintage outfits for a soiree and there Tilda stands, in a white pantsuit and cummerbund by Dior’s designer Raf Simon—no longer an art-movie zombie, but a stunning combination of Hollywood and runaway weathervane. Our Tilda—timeless and aggressively modern.

A Bigger Splash is playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer below:

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