VENICE — Although Venice is a very old city, it’s not impervious to change, and as with the rest of the world, sometimes those changes are painful. Here on Lido, the Grand Hotel des Bains — where Thomas Mann was inspired to write Death in Venice, and where Diaghilev drew his last breath in 1929 — has been shuttered since 2010. The plan was to renovate it and reopen it as a nest of luxury residences, but today the building still sits empty and quiet, magnificent in its ghostliness. An ancient little barbershop I would pass on my way to screenings in previous years is also gone: The window used to be adorned with black-and-white blowups of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni from film festivals past. I miss those pictures. As much as I like George Clooney, the red-carpet shots of him posted in the windows of other shops have far less allure.
But even though Venice, and the festival, must change to survive, the saving grace is that there’s always a movie or two (or three!) to surprise and delight. It’s been six years since the release of Luca Guadagnino’s sultry and gorgeous I Am Love, in which Tilda Swinton played an aristocratic housewife hesitating, at midlife, before making the leap toward freedom and happiness. To put it that way makes the movie sound simpler and less intense than it is: Guadagnino has a gift for treating the landscape and the faces of his actors as exemplars of nature at its grandest. Even when people are constricted by the proper codes of society, it’s in their best interest to always be people, with all the messiness of feeling that implies.
There are messy feelings, all right, in Guadagnino’s glorious, bittersweet romantic-intrigue drama A Bigger Splash, playing here in competition. Swinton returns, this time as Marianne, a world-class rock star who’s taking an Italian island holiday after a throat operation, her lover, Paul, in tow. (He’s played by Matthias Schoenaerts, sturdy and sensitive, an actor who just keeps getting better.) In the early moments, we see a supremely nude Swinton sunning herself on a rock — lithe and pale, she is one with the sun, so in tune with her surroundings that she seems more transparent than naked. We see Marianne and Paul partaking of restorative mud baths before wrapping themselves in each other’s arms with the tenderness of sleeping monkeys. This is Eden. Where’s the snake?
We’re not left waiting long. Paul’s closest friend, exuberant record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), decides to drop in. Incidentally, Harry is also Marianne’s ex, which would complicate things enough, although Harry has also brought his petulant teenage daughter along. You can smell trouble, like the aftermath of desire on a lover’s fingers, long before Penelope (a scary-sultry Dakota Johnson) dives into a pool in her see-through bralette.
There’s so much sensuality in A Bigger Splash that I can’t remember if I saw any actual depictions of sex. I believe there are some. But Guadagnino is more interested in the way love affects us when we’re fully clothed and going about our business: Harry, who has worked on records for the Rolling Stones, a history he wears as proudly as some men wear giant gold chains, still loves Marianne, and somewhat ferociously. But the more reliable Paul — a cameraman and aspiring documentary filmmaker — has become her closest friend, her caretaker, and a simpatico lover. Moreover, Harry also seems unhealthily fixated on his daughter (whom he’s met only recently, because rock ’n’ roll is sometimes like that), and she, in turn, seems hell-bent on wrecking at least one life during the course of this holiday, if not more. Meanwhile, Swinton’s Marianne remains silent, needing to rest her voice. It’s the minx vs. the Sphinx, though Marianne communicates fabulously through a combination of sign language and pure radiance. There’s never any mistaking what she means.
Perhaps you think this is the sort of madness that can happen only in the movies, though I’d posit that if you think about it, real life can sometimes be stranger. (Also, this is a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 La Piscine, with Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, and Jane Birkin, which I haven’t seen, but which I now must seek out.) Guadagnino does nudge the story in a direction viewers may not be eager to follow. A portion of the audience at the screening I attended booed noisily at the end, though an Italian friend explained to me that that was probably the result of a Guadagnino casting choice more than anything: A police detective in the film is played by an extremely popular comedian and satirist, Corrado Guzzanti, and the Italian audience is likely to find his presence jarring.
But the ending of A Bigger Splash is problematic: The tiny amateur filmmaker that lives inside you, and me, like a parasite, will surely find a moment or two that should have been cut. But mostly, Guadagnino concentrates on exploring the astonishing range of colors to be found in romantic tension, anxiety, and bliss; he’s especially attuned to the place where sensual and platonic love intersect — or must part ways. Swinton — as usual, these past few years — is pure splendor. And while I’m generally appalled by the practice of incorporating an advertising blurb into any sort of critical assessment, some rules occasionally need to be broken: “See Ralph Fiennes as you’ve never seen him before!” As Harry, he’s a vigorous, incandescent satyr, fully alive, voraciously charming, most certainly manic-depressive. Even if you’ve never had this sort of boyfriend yourself, you know his sort. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll fall for him against your better judgment — precisely the reason men like this exist.
It’s possible to love Janis Joplin’s aura, her way of being, and shrink from the frenzied desperation of her singing, the way she wrestled so much naked neediness into her phrasing — perhaps the shape of her suffering was too jagged and angular to fit into any song. But even if you only sort of love Janis Joplin as a singer, you’re sure to fall hard for her as a person after watching Amy Berg’s smart, compassionate documentary Janis, playing here out of competition. Berg — whose previous credits include the 2012 West of Memphis, an examination of the West Memphis Three case — has assembled a selection of people who knew Joplin well, including friends and family members. The person they describe is animated, buoyant, energetic, and thoughtful, as well as deeply sensitive: One friend, a former bandmate from Joplin’s early days as a singer while attending the University of Texas at Austin, barely holds back tears as he tells how she was voted the winner of the “University’s Ugliest Man” contest — a “joke” that devastated her.
No wonder Joplin cleared out for San Francisco shortly thereafter, though insecurity trailed her wherever she went. Berg, smartly, has enlisted Chan Marshall to read Joplin’s letters home to her family in Port Arthur, Texas: These dispatches are so sensible, so perceptive and straightforward, that they offer a hint that Joplin might have eventually pulled it together and survived. The fact that she didn’t is heartbreaking no matter how you feel about Joplin’s music, a point brought home most movingly in Janis by Dick Cavett. She appeared on his show several times, and it’s obvious from the clips that the two just clicked. Here Cavett speaks of her, a friend he lost long ago, with deep tenderness. Long before the days of social media, Cavett’s show connected ordinary, curious, middle-class Americans with a wider world of books, movies, music, and politics. Today, we think we’re so connected, but in that long-ago (and much smaller) media universe, Cavett was the man — you could learn a lot from him just by turning on your TV set. In Janis, he shows us the Joplin he knew. Even if we think we already knew everything about her, through his eyes, we see yet more.
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