Venice 2015: Emotional highs

A Bigger Splash, Heaven Can Wait and Anomalisa

by Damon Wise

A Bigger Splash - 'For once a director’s self-indulgence actually serves the story, since A Bigger Splash is a film about self-indulgent people with selfish needs'
A Bigger Splash - 'For once a director’s self-indulgence actually serves the story, since A Bigger Splash is a film about self-indulgent people with selfish needs' Photo: Fox Searchlight

Unlike Cannes, the Venice Film Festival is usually a fairly genteel affair, and it’s rare that a film suffers the kind of punishment doled out to Gus Van Sant’s The Sea Of Trees on the Côte D’Azur this year or Ryan Gosling’s Lost River in 2014. Nevertheless, the cavernous Darsena and Sala Grande screening rooms – both 1,000-plus seaters – echoed with loud booing at the close of Luca Guadagnino’s fun but flawed A Bigger Splash, the follow-up to 2009’s arthouse hit I Am Love and which screened in competition.

While it’s true that it in no way scales the heights of its predecessor, the reaction to Guadagnino’s film seemed OTT, owing more to Italian tall poppy syndrome than the film’s artistic weaknesses – like Paulo Sorrentino, it seems the director is more popular outside Italy than he is on home turf. If so, Guadagnino is in good company, playing the ripped-shirt, rebel punk to Sorrentino’s skinny-tied new waver. Where Sorrentino uses his immaculate, irreverent technique with careful consideration, Guadagnino lets his influences just come spewing out. The effect is extraordinary – for once a director’s self-indulgence actually serves the story, since A Bigger Splash is a film about self-indulgent people with selfish needs.

The inspiration is 1969’s La Piscine, which starred Romy Schneider and Alain Delon, and the beats of the storyline are almost identical. The main difference is in the power dynamic between the main couple – in the original the lead was a male writer and his female lover, in Guadagnino’s version it is a female rock star, Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), and her toyboy Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Marianne is recuperating from a serious operation on her vocal cords when a former lover, record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), calls. Harry has tracked the reclusive couple to a remote location and pays a surprise visit with his twenty-something daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whose mother he barely knows.

From here, the story develops as a powerplay. Harry wants Marianne back, Penelope wants Paul, and Paul just wants everyone to leave. The tension in these scenes is very cleverly mounted; a big fan of 70s exploitation films, Guadagnino uses the language of trash cinema – crash-zooms, pans, overbearing music – to get where he wants to go. His actors, however, don’t all get such free rein; Marianne is mute for most of her screen time, speaking only in a whisper; Paul mostly observes; and the obtuse Penelope plays a game so long that it’s impossible to know what she’s up to even after the film’s melodramatic climax.

In the middle, Guadagnino showcases an incredibly physical performance from Fiennes as the irrepressible Harry. This disrupts Guadagnino’s often exquisite movie as much as Harry disrupts Marianne and Paul’s idyllic holiday, and it certainly won’t be to all tastes – an uncomfortably long scene shows Harry dancing with what can only be described as total abandon to The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue for what feels like much, much longer than the song’s five-minute running time. It’s a bold gambit, but it doesn’t quite work; when Harry reveals his ulterior motives it’s fun to see the suddenly dark gleam in Fiennes’ eyes, but by that time Harry has become a bore, long outstaying his welcome in everyone's lives.

As part of the Venezia Classics, the festival screened a restoration of Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliant 1943 comedy Heaven Can Wait, starring Don Ameche as the louche Henry Van Cleve, an old rogue who merrily checks into Hell on his passing, only to find that Satan is not expecting him. Van Cleve tells his life story, which revolves around one date – Henry’s birthday – and one location, his family’s two-storey New York mansion. It is a masterpiece of wit and economy, and it was interesting to see the film screened the day before the competition screening of the masterful Anomalisa, a collaboration between marquee surrealist Charlie Kaufman and puppeteer/animator Duke Johnson. It may be that Kaufman is the only writer-director working today who can lay claim to Lubitsch’s mantle, writing scenes and dialogue that tickle by being both silly and smart, yet achieving an emotional profundity at the same time.

Anomalisa - 'A film that beautifully captures the clumsiness of human interactions'
Anomalisa - 'A film that beautifully captures the clumsiness of human interactions' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival
Like Heaven Can Wait, this is a story of apparent simplicity. Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a British ex-pat attending a customer service conference in Cincinnati, where he will be promoting his bestseller How May I Help You Help Them? Stone is in the throes of a depression, which we learn mostly by the film’s first major conceit, which is that, as well as sharing the same facial features, everyone he meets – including his wife and son – is voiced by the same actor (Tom Noonan). When Michael meets two female fans from Akron, he is smitten by the unworldly and unsophisticated but utterly charming Lisa, whose difference from the others is marked by a terrific vocal performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Much of the film takes place in the hotel where both are staying, and what at first seems like a limitation actually serves the film’s greater purpose. Expanding on the subtler moments in Kaufman’s scripts – notably the details of the relationship between Joel and Clementine in Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind – Kaufman and Johnson have created a film that beautifully captures the clumsiness of human interactions. There are few jokes per se but lots to laugh at (Lisa singing Girls Just Wanna Have Fun is a bittersweet highpoint), and though the film ends, as Kaufman’s films do, on a morose note for Michael, Lisa’s acceptance of the fact that she will only ever be a brief part of her idol's life – the anomaly of the title – is a rare note of optimism that counteracts the misery.

  • Read our report on Black Mass, Spotlight and The Danish Girl.
  • Read our report on Looking For Grace, The Daughter, Equals and The Childhood Of A Leader.
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