A Bigger Splash(First Run Features, 4.18.2006)
Prior to today, my only exposure to A Bigger Splash (the movie, not the painting) was a glimpse of the poster in a book of '70s movie posters. Based on that poster, it was never clear to me whether this was a documentary or a fiction film. The "featuring David Hockney" part suggested documentary, as the legendary British pop artist is not an actor (as far as I know) but everything else suggested that this wasn't a documentary. In reality, it's something of a hybrid: a movie filled with real people doing the things they really do, but under the watchful eye of a director (Jack Hazan), who is not opposed to re-enactment, embellishment or staging of any kind.
The result is a distinct movie experience that fails as both documentary and fiction, but succeeds as something in between. This approach seems suitable, given Hockney's immersion in the faked reality of his art. Extremely dedicated to his work, Hockney spends much of the film pondering a lost love. And this is where the film gets weird. Peter Schlesinger was Hockney's model and lover in real life and their break-up clearly had a major effect on Hockney, both personally and professionally. With this in mind, the aggressively provocative Hazan decides to shoot a lengthy scene of Schlesinger and another man in bed together, which he juxtaposes with shots of Hockney's post-break-up despair. This is an extremely harsh way to invade your subject's life, but it's also a quietly effective way of conveying Hockney's emotional devastation.
Everything about this film is quiet and unassuming, even if the content is quite often neither of those things. There's an impressive restraint and precision to Hazan's work that feels appropriate in a film largely about the relatively static act of painting. The overall design of the film is inconsistent and problematic, but the striking scenes and images make up for most of its shortcomings. Hazan has a keen sense of design and, even though he's not adept at holding the audience's attention for a prolonged period of time, he seems to recognize good material when he shoots it.
More than anything, A Bigger Splash reminds me of Wim Wenders' fiction/non-fiction film about the final days of Nicholas Ray, Lightning Over Water. Like that film, A Bigger Splash is shot in 35mm -- a format that naturally lends a larger-than-life quality to documentary -- and uses emotional, real life scenarios for something other than cinema verite urgency. There's a curious detachment to the film's aesthetic, as well as an emphasis on beautiful images that mirrors Hockney's own stated philosophy about his work (as a painter, his chief goal is to paint beautiful images).
First Run Features has delivered a solid (but non-anamorphic) 1.85:1 transfer and an extremely light dose of extras. All we get are production notes, a brief text interview with Hazan, and a photo gallery. However, this is a rare case where the absence of extras is actually a strength. Too much explanation, context, and clarification would probably suck the life out of this strange, enigmatic film. -- Jonathan Doyle