When se­crets sneak out

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

F

A Big­ger Splash, or some­what in­ex­pli­ca­ble rea­sons, A Big­ger Splash, the se­cond fea­ture film by mav­er­ick Si­cil­ian-born di­rec­tor Luca Guadagnino, takes its ti­tle from a cel­e­brated ho­mo­erotic paint­ing by David Hock­ney and the film of the same name made in 1974 by Jack Hazan — in­ex­pli­ca­ble be­cause, apart from the sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence of an out­door swim­ming pool in all three works, Guadagnino’s film has noth­ing in com­mon with Hock­ney or Hazan. In­stead it’s a re­make of a sem­i­nal French film of 1969, Jac­ques Deray’s La Piscine ( The Swim­ming Pool), a highly charged erotic thriller set in a clifftop house above Sain­tTropez that starred the iconic Alain Delon and Romy Schneider as a cou­ple whose sen­sual iso­la­tion is in­ter­rupted by the ar­rival of Mau­rice Ronet and Jane Birkin, with dra­matic re­sults.

Af­ter mak­ing a num­ber of short films and doc­u­men­taries, Guadagnino scored a sig­nal suc­cess with his first fea­ture, the el­e­gant, provo­va­tive I am Love, which many crit­ics out­side Italy con­sid­ered one of the best Ital­ian films of re­cent years. In Italy, how­ever, it was not so well re­ceived, which per­haps ex­plains why the di­rec­tor has made his se­cond fea­ture in English.

The film, scripted by David Ka­j­ganich, is set on the is­land of Pan­tel­le­ria, lo­cated south of Si­cily, an iso­lated, rocky ter­rain that, dur­ing the long, hot sum­mer, swel­ters in the Mediter­ranean sun. It’s here that Mar­i­anne Lane (Tilda Swin­ton), a cel­e­brated rock star in the David Bowie tra­di­tion, is hol­i­day­ing in seclu­sion with her lover, Paul (Matthias Schoe­naerts), while re­cu­per­at­ing from surgery on her throat. Paul is in re­cov­ery too, get­ting over a car crash that nearly killed him. Mar­i­anne is un­able to speak, but the iso­la­tion of the tiny is­land and the peace­ful sum­mer days are clearly im­por­tant to her suc­cess­ful re­cu­per­a­tion.

The peace and iso­la­tion are rudely dis­rupted by the ar­rival of Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fi­ennes), Mar­i­anne’s for­mer lover and a world-fa­mous mu­sic pro­ducer. He’s ac­com­pa­nied by Pene­lope (Dakota Fan­ning), who claims to be 22 and who Harry as­serts is his long-lost daugh­ter; both claims are some­what ques­tion­able.

Harry is one of thoses peo­ple you ei­ther love or loathe. Ut­terly self-cen­tred, bom­bas­tic, charm­ing, loud, in­fu­ri­at­ing, in­ter­fer­ing, con­trol- ling, he is a force of na­ture and Fi­ennes is su­perb in what may well be his finest screen role to date.

Dur­ing the course of a few days, past se­crets are re­vealed, sex­ual ten­sions mount, loy­al­ties are trans­ferred, clothes are shed and Rolling Stones songs are per­formed. It’s a heady mix­ture that fol­lows the ba­sic el­e­ments of Deray’s film with rea­son­able fi­delity while at the same time sub­vert­ing and aug­ment­ing them — and it’s all hugely en­ter­tain­ing. Apart from Fi­ennes’s over­whelm­ing pres­ence, Swin­ton (who was also very good in I am Love) is ter­rific and, against the odds, com­pellingly con­vinc­ing as a world-fa­mous rock star, while Schoe­naerts and Fan­ning pro­vide cru­cial sup­port.

Un­for­tu­nately, the last 15 min­utes or so of the film con­sti­tute a ma­jor let­down, for two rea­sons. One is that Guadagnino drags into the glee­fully melo­dra­matic nar­ra­tive a sub­plot in­volv­ing the plight of North African refugees head­ing for Europe; this might be timely, but it seems se­ri­ously mis­judged and, in the larger con­text of the film, mis­placed. There’s also the char­ac­ter of a lo­cal po­lice­man, a fan of Mar­i­anne, who is por­trayed as a com­plete buf­foon. In in­ter­views, Guadagnino has ad­mit­ted Ital­ian au­di­ences hated this char­ac­ter, and it’s easy to see why; he has also ad­mit­ted that di­rec­tor Bernardo Ber­tolucci warned him he would be crit­i­cised for the por­trayal of the cop — per­haps he should have lis­tened.

It’s a pity, be­cause the film is riv­et­ingly good up to this point, and stun­ningly pho­tographed by Yorick Le Saux. The di­rec­tor is now work­ing on a re­make of an­other fa­mous film, Dario Ar­gento’s hor­ror clas­sic Sus­piria (1976); it will be in­ter­est­ing to see what he makes of it. Gi­ulio Ric­cia­relli, like Guadagnino, is Ital­ian and was born in Mi­lan, but he has worked (mostly as an ac­tor) in Ger­many for many years. Labyrinth of Lies, a Ger­man pro­duc­tion, is his de­but as di­rec­tor and per­haps the most in­ter­est-

Labyrinth of Lies, ing el­e­ment to emerge from this es­sen­tially true story is that, un­til the late 1950s, most Ger­mans — or at least those who lived in the Fed­eral Re­pub­lic, or West Ger­many — were in de­nial about the Holo­caust.

The film opens in Frank­furt in 1958 when a young pros­e­cu­tor, Jo­hann Rad­mann (Alexan­der Fehling), is ap­proached by Thomas Gneilka (An­dre Szy­man­ski), an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist, and asked to con­sider the case of a Jewish artist, Si­mon Kirsch (Jo­hannes Krisch), an Auschwitz sur­vivor whose twin daugh­ters suf­fered a ter­ri­ble fate at the hands of the mon­strous Josef Men­gele. Rad­mann, who was born in 1930, had no inkling as to what had oc­curred in­side con­cen­tra­tion camps such as Auschwitz, and as he be­gins to in­ves­ti­gate, with the cau­tious en­cour­age­ment of the lo­cal pros­e­cu­tor, Fritz Bauer (Gert Voss), he grad­u­ally be­comes aware of the enor­mity of the hor­ror.

Like other Ger­mans of his gen­er­a­tion, Rad­mann seems to have ac­cepted that the war­mon­gers were pun­ished by the Al­lies at the Nurem­berg tri­als, when 150 Nazis were con­victed; but no Ger­man court had brought charges against for­mer Nazis un­til 1963, when the case in­sti­gated by Rad­mann was brought to trial.

It seems hard to be­lieve how ig­no­rant the Ger­man peo­ple were at the time, but Ric­cia­relli — per­haps with an out­sider’s per­spec­tive — and screen­writer Elis­a­beth Bar­tel, make a com­pelling case, re­mind­ing us that many for­mer Nazis were still in pow­er­ful po­si­tions at the time and that ev­ery­one wanted to for­get the past, blame Hitler, and carry on with their lives.

Rad­mann be­comes ob­sessed with ar­rest­ing Men­gele, who — he dis­cov­ers — was mak­ing fre­quent clan­des­tine vis­its to fam­ily mem­bers in Ger­many from his refuge in Ar­gentina. But Bauer re­minds him that 8000 SS men were in charge at Auschwitz dur­ing the pe­riod the camp was in op­er­a­tion, and ad­vises him not to con­cen­trate on only one killer, al­beit a par­tic­u­larly foul one.

A se­quence in which the cam­era con­cen­trates on the faces of sur­vivors as they tell their sto­ries to an in­creas­ingly hor­ri­fied Rad­mann and his sec­re­tary is the most pow­er­ful in the film.

Un­for­tu­nately, Ric­cia­relli’s style of sto­ry­telling tends to­wards the pro­saic. Se­quences such as the one just men­tioned are the ex­cep­tion in a rather plod­ding, if very well in­ten­tioned, drama. And, as is so of­ten the case in this sort of film, the scenes in­volv­ing Rad­mann’s girl­friend (the charm­ing Friederike Becht) add lit­tle to the es­sen­tial nar­ra­tive but only pro­long an al­ready gen­er­ous run­ning time. Such a sub­ject de­serves a more rig­or­ous treat­ment.

Ralph Fi­ennes and Tilda Swin­ton in

above; Jo­hann Rad­mann and Mar­lene Won­drak in

below

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