Gilbey on Film: The truth about David Hockney

What's the connection between the artist and TOWIE?

David Hockney may have been a greater presence in your life recently than members of your own family. Anyone would think he were the subject of a new show at the Royal Academy or something. But ask yourself this question: what is the connection between Hockney and The Only Way is Essex?

I'm no good at suspense so I'll go ahead and tell you the answer: A Bigger Splash. Jack Hazan's 1974 film about the artist and his friends looks at first like a documentary. Everyone we see appears as themselves, in situations representative of the early-1970s London art scene. But as Hazan explains in an interview included on the BFI's new DVD/Blu-Ray edition of A Bigger Splash, the film contains "very little that's observation. It's not fly-on-the-wall." The late fashion designer Ossie Clark, one of the subjects of Hockney's painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (clue: he's not Percy)described it as "truer than the truth." This will not be a radical concept for viewers of TOWIE.

Like Rude Boy, the film about the Clash which Hazan co-directed with his partner David Mingay, A Bigger Splash is a staged work. It was shaped by Hazan over the three years he spent tagging along with Hockney. The director suggested to his subjects situations and conversations for them to play out, or brazenly manipulated the footage he shot -- notably the scene of the artist destroying an unwanted canvas, an unexceptional occurrence in the life of a painter that is transformed here (through the use of Patrick Gowers's deliberately Herrman-esque score) into a sign of psychological turmoil. The picture bills its participants like actors in the opening titles, and even has a "written by" credit shared by Hazan and Mingay. It's not like we can see we've been hoodwinked.

Hazan had begun shooting material when Mingay spotted in Hockney's life the tension between the artist and his former lover and muse, Peter Schlesinger, who had recently left him. Schlesinger, initially grudging until his palm was crossed with silver, became the film's mutely radiant star. He sleepwalks prettily through dreams of Hazan's devising.

Any ambiguity about process is especially pertinent to a movie concerning the genesis of a work of art. Hockney's painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is pieced together before our eyes, from the original photographic studies of the swimming boy to the temporary use of the painter's assistant Mo McDermott (a bedraggled soul for whom Hazan's camera becomes a kind of confidante) as the poolside observer; McDermott is eventually replaced by a study of Schlesinger, painted in Kensington Gardens and then decanted into the canvas. The painting is only one of the elements in the film which is subject to transformation. A studio is built, a gallery is broken apart; relationships are shown in various state of disrepair, accompanied by McDermott's mournful refrain: "When love goes wrong, more than two people suffer."

Through it all runs a curiosity, and at times queasiness, about looking and being looked at. It was the fraught relationship between the figures in Hockney's paintings which first sparked in Hazan the idea of making A Bigger Splash, and it's a friction that survives in the finished film. In Hockney's work, people gaze into the distance, or defiantly out of the canvas at us, but never quite seem to connect with one another. To this complex dynamic Hazan adds another layer by showing the subjects inspecting their own portraits. This, in turn, is varnished by our voyeurism as viewers.

The film's interest in the relationship between the corporeal form and its painted equivalent leads inevitably to the question of how we are changed by being looked at. The boy Tadzio in Death in Venice (Thomas Mann's novella, rather than Visconti's film), adapts his behaviour noticeably when he becomes aware of Von Aschenbach's gaze; his admirer's attention alone is enough to change and even spoil him. A Bigger Splash exhibits some of that same ambivalence. The models are suspended within the canvas like medical specimens. Hazan films Schlesinger standing naked outside a Los Angeles house, hands pressed against the glass, while the two figures inside eat dinner and ignore him. Finally he gives up and dives into their pool -- he has no choice but to retreat back into the watery prison which Hockney's paintbrush has built for him.

Now, I will have to come clean here and admit that I have never seen The Only Way is Essex (or, for that matter, its US parent The Hills). But I am rather minded to give it a whirl after seeing A Bigger Splash and admiring the frisson between the factual and the fabricated. I wonder if the cultural traffic will also run in the other direction, with TOWIE fans helping Hazan's film to make a splash in the DVD charts.

"A Bigger Splash" (BFI) is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 30 January

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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7 things we learned from the Comic Relief Love, Actually sequel

Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed.

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Kate Moss is forever a great sport

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Even gay subtext is enough to get you killed

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If you get together in Christmas 2003, you will stay together forever. It’s just science.

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Now listen to the SRSLY Love, Actually special:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.