A Bigger Splash is the very definition of enigmatic. The best description I can think of is that it’s kind of like The Only Way Is Essex, but made in the early 1970s and featuring artist David Hockney and his circle. Yep, that does sound weird, because it kind of is.
On the surface it seems like a fly on the wall documentary looking at Hockney, but as you watch it slowly becomes clear that what you’re seeing isn’t a documentary at all. Instead it is recreation of reality, using all the real players in Hockney’s life, who are taking part in a devised reflection of the truth. It is therefore an odd ally to TOWIE and its ilk, but of course made at a time when reality soaps would have seemed like the idea of a madman.
The movie opens with Hockney talking about a new love, but then zooms back in time three years to when he’s recently split up with his young boyfriend, Peter Schlesinger. The film then covers the time following the split, ostensibly looking at how ‘when love goes wrong more than two people suffer’. However if you’re hoping for it draw any conclusions or lead the viewer by the hand, you’re completely out of luck.
A Bigger Splash takes its lead from Hockney’s famed paintings, with their fascination for looking at subjects through other things (glass, water), as well as how they frame their subjects and feature characters who seem slightly detached both from each other and the viewer. The film is therefore very deliberately a reflection of (and on) Hockney, but with no clear viewpoint. Is it Hockney’s view of himself? Is it his friends’? Is it the director’s? Is the truth, as the film seems to hint, going to come from a mix of these views?
The result is enigmatic and interesting, even while it’s somewhat frustrating. Any attempt to gain a further understanding of Hockney himself is just out of reach, as the film doesn’t allow the audience to get a full handle on what it’s doing. It’s a fascinating film, but not one you can trust. It’s almost like the unreliable narrator in literature, but here that unreliable narrator is the movie itself.
It might sound like I’m denigrating the film for this, but I’m most certainly not. It may indeed encapsulate things that for most movies would be major weaknesses, but here they’re an integral part of the avant garde whole. With a famous subject like Hockney, you expect a documentary that ticks the boxes and shows you his life and art, but instead Jack Hazan has created something where you have to question everything you see.
Interestingly though, although A Bigger Splash is difficult to trust, Hockney himself found the whole thing far too close to the truth and allegedly offered to pay to have the negative destroyed. He may have eschewed the pop art label others thrust on him, but like many creative people, he was aware that the public Hockney was a creation, and that this film could affect that. He later changed his mind and apparently now views it as a worthwhile portrait. Indeed that idea in itself is incredibly intriguing, suggesting this is the cinematic equivalent of when one artist paints another.
So it would seem the film gets close to the truth, but it’s impossible to tell exactly what is true and what we’re seeing through a veil. Hockney come across as a little self-obsessed, playing on his working class roots but whose problems and attitude are rather decadent (although he appear oblivious to that). But then it’s perhaps not surprising he comes across like that as he’s constantly being affirmed as the centre of his own universe by agents, gallery owners and collectors, as well as friends whose existence seem to largely revolve around him.
A Bigger Splash really is a fascinating creation. It almost feels like a British response to the much messier and less well constructed Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey films, Flesh and Trash, with which they share a created reality aesthetic.
For 1974 it’s also incredibly frank in its depiction of gay sexuality. We normally think of cinema back then pretty much censoring homosexuality out of existence, but this is amongst those rare documents that refused to be coy about it. Even now it contains at least one scene that was lucky to get away with a 15 certificate (in 1974 the BBFC tried to ban the movie, but eventually relented). Few movies of the time manage to be so frank, blasé and natural about gay people as this. The film was seen as quite scandalous at the time it was released, but its view of gay life is actually wonderfully quiet and matter of fact.
This dual format Blu-ray and DVD release also includes some good special features, including an illuminating interview with director Jack Hazan. There are also two other later 60s/early 70s works on Hockney. ‘Love’s Presentation’ looks at the process of how the artist created etchings illustrating some of his favourite poetry, while 1972’ ‘Portrait Of David Hockney’ is a 13 minute look at the man. With the BFI including a very informative 26 page booklet, packed with background info about the movie, it’s an extremely good release. Of course it’s also well timed, with a new exhibition of Hockney’s work having just opened at the Royal Academy Of Arts.
Overall Verdict: An enigmatic, frustrating and yet incredibly rewarding movie, which was ahead of its time in trying to get at the emotional truth by creating its own reality.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac