A Bigger Splash – the new film from Italian director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, 2009) – begins with a scene in which two bodies luxuriate by the pool of their villa on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria. Each is entirely naked.
Marianne (Tilda Swinton) lies on her back, legs bent and folded, reading a book. Her boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), lies face down on a lounge, his eyes shut. The camera pans from Marianne to Paul, with the slow pace invited by the sun, observing their bodies with a relaxed gaze, establishing a space that’s sexy, intimate and perfectly ordinary. It’s the way two lovers behave when they think no one’s watching.
Soon, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) will arrive, uninvited, to interrupt their tranquil idyll. Marianne can’t speak (she’s a rock star, recovering from throat surgery) and Harry won’t shut up. He’s an extroverted hedonist who seeks pleasure wherever he can find it. Harry was Marianne’s producer and lover, until he introduced her to Paul six years earlier. Now he’s intent on taking her back, bringing a young woman, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whom he claims is his daughter, to aid with his mission.
As is clear from the film’s opening scene, the nudity in A Bigger Splash is firmly of the equal opportunity variety. But it doesn’t proceed as you might expect. While the film contains one long-distance full frontal shot of the young, nubile Johnson, it’s 53-year-old Fiennes whose body is most frequently exposed.
Harry is a hurricane of sexual energy, relentlessly moving and thrusting about (a scene in which Fiennes dances, clothed, to the Rolling Stones’ ‘Emotional Rescue’ is a highlight). His clothing accentuates his carnality – he’s prone to forgetting to button his shirts – and he’s partial to promenading poolside without his pants. Guadagnino doesn’t obscure any part of Fiennes with carefully placed objects or shadows; we see all of him for far longer than a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment.
As a European arthouse film, A Bigger Splash affirms our expectations of how nudity can be approached in a system where full frontal male nudity is neither cause for alarm nor a source of humour. It simply is. A wholly original filmmaker, and a gay man himself, Guadagnino sees the naked body with a vision detached from the rigidity of the straight male gaze. This has interesting implications for his framing of both male and female bodies, clothed and unclothed, and how they relate to each other. While A Bigger Splash’s plot ostensibly pivots on heterosexual desire, Fiennes shares a number of scenes with Schoenaerts’ Paul (Harry nude, Paul clothed) that carry a particularly homoerotic charge.
American film has a long tradition of shrouding the penis in humour, turning it into a strange, dysfunctional organ.
It’s an approach in direct contrast to the one most often employed by Hollywood, which usually runs, with horror, from full frontal male nudity. American film has a long tradition of shrouding the penis in humour, turning it into a strange, dysfunctional organ. Think of the penis painfully trapped in a zipper in There’s Something About Mary (1998), or buried in warm apple pie in American Pie (1999). If the penis appears most often in comedies it’s because the ensuing laughter can dilute whatever panic its visibility might unleash – on other characters (especially other men) within the film, or on those in the audience (presumed to be straight men) who might feel uncomfortable looking directly at it.
The situation isn’t any better in serious dramas. Cast your mind back to the 2012 Golden Globes, when George Clooney accepted his award for Best Actor and thanked fellow nominee Michael Fassbender (nominated for his searing, often naked work in Shame) for ‘taking over the frontal nude responsibility that I had’. Clooney’s tease was just that, a tease. He has never had ‘frontal nude responsibility’; very few so-called A-list Hollywood actors have. The dominant script of American masculinity, where the male body is presented as active, tough and impenetrable, doesn’t support incidental nudity. In this context, a flaccid penis is disempowering.
But the same can’t be said for women. Among the A-list, Kate Winslet, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman come to mind as actresses who have regularly appeared nude with no discernible disadvantage to their careers. Winslet even won an Oscar for The Reader (2008), a film in which she appears completely naked numerous times. A double standard persists in the mainstream – female nudity is so ubiquitous as to be unexceptional; male nudity of the full frontal variety is so rare that it requires careful management. Jason Segal dropping his towel in the opening scene of Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) is memorable not only for the repeated direct framing of his penis, but for the entire publicity campaign that was built around it. The situation is so desperate that a shadowy glimpse of Ben Affleck’s penis as he exits the shower in Gone Girl (2014) was considered cause for celebration.
European and arthouse films encourage us to look at men differently – to see the male body as vulnerable, passive and soft.
Any real celebration of full frontal male nudity has to take place elsewhere. European and arthouse films encourage us to look at men differently – to see the male body as vulnerable, passive and soft – and have provided a space for acclaimed actors to bare it all repeatedly. Ewan McGregor comes to mind: for a significant slice of the late 1990s, it seemed impossible to watch a film without seeing McGregor’s penis. There it was in The Pillow Book (1996), Trainspotting (1996), Velvet Goldmine (1998), and later in Young Adam (2003). This is a very good thing, because McGregor’s nudity is almost never gratuitous, but instead completely natural and ordinary within the context of his character’s actions. As a result, it really is no big deal.
Nudity isn’t a big deal for Fiennes either. And the full frontal display in A Bigger Splash isn’t his first time. He made his film debut without his pants on with a small role in Peter Greenaway’s The Baby of Macon (1993). Since then, Fiennes has appeared in various states of undress in a number of films – so willing to disrobe that Julianne Moore, his co-star in The End of the Affair (1999) famously dubbed him ‘Mr No Pants’. Beyond this, he has had extended sequences of full frontal nudity in the arthouse film Sunshine (1999) and the Hollywood thriller Red Dragon (2002). His career continues to thrive, in the mainstream and beyond.
Fiennes’ dancing in A Bigger Splash has been described by many as ‘dad dancing’, suggesting he’s just an average man, without any exceptional movement skills. While the now-ageing Fiennes remains a gorgeous gent, he doesn’t fit the conventional sex symbol mould. In this way, his nudity in A Bigger Splash isn’t extraordinary; which is really the point. It is not about displaying the ‘body beautiful’ in the way, for example, of a nude Ryan Gosling appearance. Like his fellow ‘repeat offender’ McGregor, Fiennes’ nudity is refreshing and important precisely because it’s unremarkable within the context of the film.
I want to see more men naked like this on screen. If the same regime that obsesses over female bodies also physically oppresses men, this does damage to the way we see male bodies too. If male nudity were more common, the sight of a penis would be neither a cause for celebration nor alarm. Because, let’s face it, it shouldn’t be either. But keep the penises hidden, keep laughing at them, and we continue to grant them more symbolic power than they deserve. Men should be seen naked on screen so often that their nudity will eventually cease to matter at all.