In 2010, Judith Scharansky, a graphic designer who grew up in East Germany and was thus restricted in her ability to travel abroad, published a book called Atlas of Remote Islands: 50 Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will. In this small but entertaining volume, she reminds us that “paradise is an island. So is hell.” Modern movie directors, when setting films in island locales, seem to have borne her words in mind. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash, currently at FilmScene, and Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island, recently re-released by Criterion, for instance, take both parts of Scharansky’s dichotomy to heart.
As summer approaches, you might be in the mood to watch good English-language actors take their clothes off and frolic in the Italian sun. If so, then A Bigger Splash is the film for you. Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a stadium-level rock star whose stage costume was stolen from David Bowie’s closet and who at the opening of the film is recovering from throat surgery; she and her flawless hairstyle are relaxing with boyfriend Paul (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) on Pantelleria, an island roughly halfway between Tunisia and the west coast of Sicily. Into her recuperative idyll explode the flamboyantly manic record producer and former lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes in an indelible performance) and his recently and somewhat mysteriously discovered daughter, Penelope (played by the sultry Dakota Johnson). Trouble is clearly in store.
Though Harry’s arrival is ostensibly coincidental, he is clearly there with an agenda, one which involves barely subdued emotions and also seems to involve his daughter and her mysterious past. As the siroccos build and the whipsnakes appear, the dramatic and emotional tensions rise. The title track from the Rolling Stones’ 1980 release Emotional Rescue forms an ironic soundtrack to the film, in which we see very little emotional rescue of any kind, and Ralph Fiennes does a hilarious dance to the song near the midpoint which forms a sort of tense comic interlude.
As with I am Love, Guadagnino’s previous collaboration with Swinton, A Bigger Splash is concerned with superficiality and appearances — perfect settings, perfect cars, shots of food that are practically pornographic, perfect clothes, perfect skin. But it is also concerned with the tensions, jealousies and histories that go unrevealed. Indeed, the first 75 minutes of the movie is all about this building tension, with the remaining runtime being a quickly accelerating downhill ride. Typical of Guadagnino’s approach, there are many hints, often told in flashback or in small details within the frame, but little overt exposition of the events and relationships that impact the current action. This at times feels like a cheap way to engage audience interest after the film ends, but is also useful in convincing us of the genuine weirdness of these characters, especially the mysterious Penelope.
If A Bigger Splash is about an island filled with naked people, Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island is about an island as a background for almost emotionless family struggle and hardship. As with Pantelleria, Shindo’s unnamed island is a place both removed from central populations and with rules and traditions all its own. It is, however, entirely unpopulated except for the family that forms the central characters of the film. As if in common solidarity with Tilda Swinton’s character, the cast of Shindo’s film is all but silent; a full third of the runtime passes before any human voice is heard. The protagonist here is the island itself, the surrounding sea, and the hardships and rare simple pleasures of a life so isolated from more popular residential locations.
The Naked Island can be read either as paean to the overwhelming beauty of nature and its utter disregard for human endeavor, or as a neorealist critique of modern work, with its sameness, repetition and dull routine. In either case, the cinematography is beautiful, shot in lush black and white, it comes across like a nature film that happens to have a few people in it, and serves as a reminder of Japan’s deep and enduring traditional ways of life during a period of immense change and development in postwar Japan. The Naked Island is available on the Criterion Collection website and can be streamed on Criterion’s Hulu channel.
Whether used as a stage for overblown human emotions or as an imposing natural backdrop for seemingly tiny human struggles, the island as a cinematic setting can lend a heightened isolation and drama that calls attention to the sense of place in a way mainland settings can’t. In the preface to her book of remote islands, Judith Scharansky claims that there is “no more poetic book in the world” than the geographic atlas, since it lays out so straightforwardly the separateness of countries, continents and islands, while at the same time showing their spatial relationships to each other. Some of that same sense of poetry runs through both of these engaging summer films.
Warren Sprouse teaches in Cedar Rapids and is a regular contributor to Talking Movies. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 200.