Italian director Luca Guadagnino made a name for himself on the international scene with 2009’s I Am Love, a fascinating portrait of the rise and fall of a wealthy Milanese family.
Guadagnino’s new film A Bigger Splash is his take on 1969 French-riviera-set La Piscine. He swaps France for the Sicilian island of Pantelleria and Romy Schneider for Tilda Swinton.
Swinton plays rockstar-on-retreat Marianne Lane, who is vacationing with her beau Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) after a throat operation. Their quiet is broken by the arrival of old friend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).
Your film is set in Pantelleria, but none of the protagonists is Italian. How do you represent your world through the eyes of foreigners while staying true to it?
The answer lies in my method of always asking myself: what is the reality of the thing you’re doing? How do you deal with this reality?
In this case the characters, the milieu, the place - Pantelleria itself. It was very important that in that movie everything felt absolutely committed to the reality of [the place].
I hope that, apart from Pantelleria, if you see the movie - if you see Marianne Lane in the green room, for example - you will feel that’s real. You won’t see it as a sort of cinematic construction. It’s so important to me.
There is nothing more fascinating than reality. You can play with different elements and make a spectacle out of it. But if you use [reality] as a canvas and fill in a staged idea of things - the Mediterranean as an abstract thing - I think you can only make something that feels sad, like Captain Corelli's Mandolin’s Greece, The Tourist’s Italy.
I learned from the great masters that I worship like Hitchcock, Lang and Renoir: when they went from their countries to America, they became chameleons of the American identity and they were so precise in portraying it. They never went for a false version of it.
Yet, Italians hated the Italy portrayed in A Bigger Splash. We are still being infiltrated by the virus of fascism. [The idealised way other directors portray it] is a sort of abstract idea that is more bearable.
Pantelleria has been at the centre of the refugee crisis for years. How did you decide how much you should let reality seep into the story?
You have to stick to your point of view when you do a movie; if you swap point of view, you’re suddenly making a drama. If you are internal to the narrative, then that’s what happens: you have those glimpses because it’s their perspective of it. That’s how [the refugee crisis] appears to the gaze of our protagonists.
[Making a movie without mentioning it] would have been a travesty because the movie is set in Pantelleria, and that’s what is happening there. Plus, I wanted to talk about how we deal with otherness in the relationship of these for people who are bound to neglect the other because they are so immersed in their own vision of things.
You have made it clear that you have a strong connection with the great filmmakers of the past. How do you deal with the legacy of the great masters?
I do believe that, in general, you can’t create the future unless you have a very strong knowledge of the past to interpret the present. I think that for cinema it’s so important to be aware of the legacy of the act of creation because it can only make you aware of a method of thinking.
I believe in reasoning through the lens of these great voices - how would have Godard have thought of this movie? - rather than mimicking their style. Nowadays, I see a lot of mimicking and ripping off tropes from the masters.
How would have Douglas Sirk have thought of the story of Emma Recchi in I Am Love? Rather than doing a film in the style of Douglas Sirk, I try to push myself and not lay on my own first answers or preordained stylistic decisions.
A Bigger Splash shares the title with an iconic David Hockney painting. Did it influence you while making the film?
Totally. But we didn’t try to reproduce the painting in the movie. We thought of what the lesson of Hockney was - this bidimensional breaking of the surface. What happened before? What is happening now? These were the mysterious questions we asked ourselves.
A Bigger Splash is out in Curzon Cinemas from Friday 11 February.