When secrets sneak out
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