The newly restored “A Bigger Splash” is an intimate portrait of David Hockney and his friends and lovers in the early 1970s, almost each frame a vibrant picture of a time, place, and sensibility in the arts. The Swinging Sixties had just washed over into the second wave of liberation in London and New York and in Hockney himself — opening the way to explicit depictions of gay life and love.
This is not a documentary, but Jack Hazan constructs his story from film shot from 1971 to ’73, during which time most of Hockney and company seem to have lost all self-consciousness in front of his camera. (Hockney said he doesn’t remember being filmed taking a shower.)
Hazan captures everything from mundane activities such as shaving to bursts of creativity in the art studio and in bed. Hockney is seen on the couch being casually affectionate with a paramour. His friend Mo McDermott leaves the bed of a male lover and there is no attempt to hide his nakedness as he shuffles into the kitchen. And Hockney’s lover and muse Peter Schlesinger — dressed like Tadzio from “Death in Venice” in one scene by his side at a fashion show — pops up with no warning making love to another young man in one of the most erotic scenes in cinema history. It is both beautiful and real.
But the centerpiece of the film is Hockney’s creation of what turned out to be his most famous painting, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” the enigmatic image of a young man swimming underwater in a pool at gay director Tony Richardson’s villa near Saint-Tropez with a fully dressed Schlesinger standing near the edge looking down at him. We see Hockney destroying an earlier version and feverishly working for a few weeks on the one we know — taking photos of Schlesinger in Kensington Gardens as the model for the image in the finished work. Already an established artist by this time — and unapologetic about his gay imagery — Hockney sold this work in 1972 for $18,000 (more than $110,000 in today’s dollars). Owned by David Geffen at one time, it resold for $90.3 million in 2018 to an anonymous bidder, setting the record for a living artist that was just broken by less than a million more by Jeff Koons.
“A Bigger Splash” the painting, by the way, is a 1967 work of water splashing out of an LA pool in a simpler but no less iconic composition.
No starving artist, Hockney is able to pick up and move to New York, Paris, or California as the spirit moves him, sometimes to the consternation of friends. Some dramatic tension is introduced by interactions with John Kasmin, owner of the eponymous gallery that sells Hockney’s work, who is impatient for new, promised canvases that Hockney has not delivered.
We also see famous designers Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell —immortalized as a couple with their cat in one of Hockney’s large-scale portraits — at work and at play. Knowing as we do now that these scenes are just before their divorce adds bittersweet notes. (Clark went on to have relationships with men — a tempestuous one with Nicholas Balaban that collapsed in 1983 and one with a subsequent mad lover who killed him in 1996.)
Some of the film’s sequences are surreal, especially Schlesinger swimming and then walking nude to the house of an older woman subject of Hockney’s, Betty Freeman, and a gay couple dining inside. And Hockney’s interactions with out gay curator Henry Gledzhaler — later Ed Koch’s Cultural Affairs commissioner — in the bath and elsewhere have a touch of fantasy as well.
There are also scenes of naked young men joyously cavorting in and around a pool and that sequence of Hockney showering. Hockney went into a depression after the film’s release but later came to appreciate it. His career was further boosted by the movie. And our appreciation for him as an artist and person is enhanced as well.
“I paint what I like when I like and where I like,” Hockney says.
What a life.
A BIGGER SPLASH | Directed by Jack Hazan | Opens Jun. 21 | Metrograph, 7 Ludlow St., btwn. Canal & Hester Sts.; metrograph.com
The trailer for “A Bigger Splash is at youtu.be/JTjY4PAzEpg.