Tilda Swinton: ‘Our film started as sick satire – now it’s a recognisable portrait’

A Bigger Splash is our fourth-favourite film of the year. Its star explains what it taught her about human nature – and reveals if she really was channelling David Bowie

Our No 4 film of the year is the fourth collaboration between Luca Guadagnino and Tilda Swinton, after The Protagonists (1999), The Love Factory (2002) and I Am Love (2010). A shimmering erotic thriller, A Bigger Splash stars Swinton as a near-mute rockstar recuperating from throat surgery in a luxury villa on a remote Italian island with her boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts). They are then invaded by her ex, a roistering, hard-dancing record producer played by Ralph Fiennes, and his sultry daughter (Dakota Johnson). Swinton, 56, is currently shooting a fourth film with Guadagnino, Suspiria – a horror set in a 1977 ballet school in Berlin – and so replied to questions by email.

What are your feelings about A Bigger Splash at this distance?

We are proud of it. We made it in a kind of fever, very fast – in the eye of the wind – and now that the dust has settled, it’s good to see that chaos bottled in the film from a safe distance. Quicksilver was its material … getting a cork on it was the task.

What did playing such a non-vocal character tell you about communication?

That words aren’t the half of it.

Should people embrace muteness more? Do we say too much?

No comment.

The film touches on the refugee crisis. Have you been surprised at the lack of progress on that front since you made the film?

The refugee crisis on Pantelleria [where A Bigger Splash is set and was shot] has been a reality for generations. Further, slaves were “processed” there centuries ago. Both facts form the bedrock of setting A Bigger Splash on this particular island. The film we made was about a kind of solipsistic bubble-life lived by those that choose to edit out certain realities in an effort to fantasise the conceit of a “perfect”-ly self-centred narrative.

A Bigger Splash: exclusive clip featuring Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton

This bubble-capacity has certainly had a – startlingly – strong year: our film started life as a kind of sick satire about different ways of carrying that bubble-commitment: the overbearing and incessant babbling of the narcissist, the disengagement of the bereaved and disenchanted, the resentful cowering of tamed (suppressed) violence and the lethal allure of the undereducated, surface-sampling, oversaturated young. Looking at it now, it’s all of a sudden – and somewhat dispiritingly – a darker and more recognisable portrait of a human landscape less rarified than we had thought when we made it, even 18 months ago.

As Ralph Fiennes’s character claims – is Europe a grave? Is everyone obscene?

Certainly. The entire planet is a grave. We walk on – and with – the dead. But we also live forward, in a continually renewable birthplace. Just as we are all capable of obscene cruelty and barbaric selfishness, at the same time, we – all – have within us the generosity of unconditional kindness and the wisdom and courage of fearless fairness. It’s all about choices.

Does wealth and a certain kind of success naturally risk conceit?

Conceit and delusion are not the exclusive province of the rich, nor is it inevitable that wealth and what is called worldly success necessarily makes for monstrous or arseholic behaviour and attitudes. People are people and all of us have the opportunity to play into those tired old stereotypes just as we are free to ignore them. See above re making choices.

Was Marianne modelled in part on Bowie’s Aladdin Sane?

Actually, this is a misunderstanding. We weren’t particularly pitching ourselves in Ziggy’s direction – although it had to be admitted that anyone opting for an onstage sequin jumpsuit until the end of time will be somehow seen as quoting him ... fair enough … pace Marc Bolan, pace Freddy Mercury et al … Marianne’s public persona is certainly just as influenced by Bowie as anybody of my generation, but also by many others – Chrissie Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux, Nick Cave …

What have you learned from Luca Guadagnino that you haven’t learned from other collaborators?

That I’m not the only one who prefers the quiet treasure of lengthy pre- and post- production to the whip-crack of shooting, however much fun we make it.

Has A Bigger Splash changed your dancing?

Put it this way, I’ve yet to sign up for lessons at the Fiennes fine dance academy and weekly Jazzercise Jamboree. But never say never.

A Bigger Splash is available now on DVD and Blu-ray


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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