To call Italian impresario Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015) a remake of La Piscine, Jacques Deray’s 1969 romantic thriller, would certainly be a faux pas. Built on the same narrative foundations and deploying a superficially similar cast of duplicitous dilettantes, a more appropriate word to use might be a “re-organising” or, to speak in the terms of record producer Harry (Maurice Ronet, later Ralph Fiennes), a remix.
Cultivated from the same germ of an idea, the two films spiral outward into different themes and motifs that tease out ideas and implications left untouched by their counterpart. Call Me By Your Name director Guadagnino, who will be remaking Dario Argento’s grizzly 1977 horror Suspiria later this year, reinterprets Deray’s narrative with a methodology that calls to mind the way theatre companies adapt and morph Shakespeare’s prose to fit new contexts and fulfil different narrative goals.
Both are products of time and place. La Piscine is very ’60s, and undeniably French. Events play out at the lavish villa on the Côte d’Azur at a considered, languorous pace as the players bake in the Mediterranean sun. Alain Delon’s melancholy ad man Jean-Paul and Romy Schneider’s wistfully amorous Marianne are at once deeply passionate in their coupledom and infuriatingly susceptible to the charms of outsiders. The arrival of Harry and his teenage daughter Penelope (Jane Birkin) upsets the apple cart with marked ease, and what ensues is a cavalcade of loaded conversations and longing gazes before things inevitably, but artfully, explode.
While Splash is equally as thoughtful, it is thoroughly modern in its kinetic, hyperactive energy and gaudy excess. Deray’s characters are certainly living the high life, but are largely rooted in normality and mundanity – having given up on dreams of creativity and fame before the first frame. Guadagnino cranks up Piscine’s luxury to 11 as the cast holidays at a palatial estate on Pantelleria, an Italian island off the south-west coast of Sicily. Marianne is now a Bowie-esque rock star (Tilda Swinton, naturally), Jean-Paul a PTSD-ridden documentarian and dreamboat (Matthias Schoenaerts) now simply called Paul, and Harry (Fiennes) a vulgar, gauche, obnoxious firecracker from a completely different planet to his effortless, understated 1969 analogue.
Subtext in Piscine becomes outright text in Splash. Delicately implied histories – relationships, wrongs, and regrets – are laid bare when Guadagnino smash-cuts into revelatory flashbacks. Not to imply that Splash represents a loss of nuance and craft – quite the opposite. The way Guadagnino and scriptwriter David Kajganich play with their source material manifests in subversions, inversions and diversions from what Deray presented in 1969, rather than simplification or misinterpretation.
At the heart of this is the reimagined Penelope, who reappears in 2015 in the form of Dakota Johnson. Piscine sees Birkin craft a facade of naive virginity which slowly peels back to reveal the young Pen as just as impulsive, sexual and self-centred as her elders. Conversely, Johnson plays Pen as a worldly, unknowable beacon of sexuality who is slowly revealed as little more than a child trying to assert herself among adults who know little better than she does. By subtly shifting Pen’s characteristics around, the two films bring out something entirely different in (Jean-)Paul, who is tempted by the promise of hidden carnality in 1969 and driven to near-paternal protectiveness in 2015.
Splash also works to realign Marianne as a more central player to proceedings. Where Piscine makes her mysterious history with Harry the impetus for both men’s motivations, she is simply swept along in the turmoil that unfolds – more of a victim than a perpetrator. Swinton’s rendering – amusingly mute, due to a vocal chord injury – is granted more agency, but with that comes the price of increased complicity. Her decades-spanning connection to Harry is ramped up to near-unbearable intensity, while her dutiful connection to Paul is rendered far more romantic and dedicated. Where Schneider’s Marianne was spared some blame for her indifference to the two men and their quarrels, Swinton actively engages in the games of heart and mind in such a way that she cannot conceivably distance herself from their disastrous consequences.
Those disastrous consequences represent the most distinctive scene in either film – and perhaps most plainly demonstrate their differences. Around the 90-minute mark – both films are two hours long, more or less exactly – a paralytic Harry returns to the villa poolside to find recovering alcoholic (Jean-)Paul most of the way through a bottle of something strong. He’s waited up for his old, estranged friend and they have a lot to talk about. Fitfully stop-start, near-nonsensical arguments about Marianne and Pen culminate in Harry falling into the eponymous pool, too drunk to pull himself out.
In Piscine, this leads to a laborious, gruelling single-shot sequence as Harry flounders around in the water for an exit. The camera lazily tracks his paddling, but every time Harry reaches the side, Jean-Paul is waiting to push him back out adrift. Deray forces us to watch this unfold for an excruciatingly long stretch before an incensed Jean-Paul finally resolves to hold Harry’s head underwater until he stops moving.
Guadagnino reframes this aquatic contest to suit his 21st-century tendency to excess and excitement. A naked Harry (Fiennes, along with the rest of Splash’s cast at least once in the film, exposes himself entirely) drags Paul in with him and the two engage in a desperate, almost pathetic, yet action-movie exhilarating tussle which goes back and forth as the camera spirals around, struggling to find a foothold. This heady set piece ends by landing on the despair and regret that rushes across Harry’s face, held underwater by Paul, as he expires completely.
From here, the films continue on their diverging paths – the subtle differences in characters old and new have accumulated into a butterfly effect which sees one version run down a path the other would never consider, and vice versa.
Watching the two back-to-back, you realise that Splash is anything but a cynical, Hollywood remake of La Piscine – rather, it is an essential companion piece. It is hard to imagine one being quite so effective without the other and, together, they stand as testament to the singular talents of their respective casts and crew and how fresh eyes can put a remarkably different spin on the same material. Both films capture lightning in a bottle from the same source – but they sparkle in remarkably different patterns, colours and shapes.