A Bigger Splash
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino.
Written by: David Kajganich and Alain Page.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Marianne Lane), Matthias Schoenaerts (Paul De Smedt), Ralph Fiennes (Harry Hawkes), Dakota Johnson (Penelope Lannier), Lily McMenamy (Sylvie), Aurore Clément (Mireille), Elena Bucci (Clara), Corrado Guzzanti (Maresciallo).
A Bigger Splash is a movie about four incredibly self-involved people, who spend the entire film needling each other. No matter what two – or more – characters are on screen at any one point, the threat that they could just stop talking and start fucking is very real. They are on an estate, on a beautiful, sunbaked Italian island, oblivious to anyone or anything outside of their own little world. They are all beautiful, rich and white, so of course, they do not have to care about anyone but themselves. By the end of the movie, you may well have concluded that they are all awful people – but you won’t be sorry that you spent two hours in their company – in fact, you may well wish you could do it in real life.
Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a rock star in the David Bowie vein (they’re playing with us here to be sure, as everyone knows we not only want, but need to see a Bowie biopic with Swinton in the lead role) – who has just had surgery on her vocal chords, that will hopefully repair them, although there is a risk that she’ll never sing again if they don’t heal right. She cannot speak above a whisper – and doesn’t do that often, but it doesn’t matter, because Swinton doesn’t need dialogue to be a mesmerizing screen presence. She’s at her house with her hunky, younger boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker and photographer, who is caring for her, even though he has some deep issues of his own he’s still working through. In the few brief scenes we see of them together, it looks like they’re in their own personal oasis – nothing is going to get in the way of their sundrenched, mud soaked orgy of indulgence. But, of course, it does. Harry (Ralph Fiennes) – Marianne’s former producer and boyfriend – calls and basically invites himself, and his daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), to stay with them. Penelope is 22, but only came into Harry’s life the previous year- before then, they didn’t know each other existed. Harry is wildly exuberant – he’s constantly on, constantly needing to be the life of the party, in a way that is initially charming, but eventually would become exhausting – which is the impression we get as to why he and Marianne are no longer together. It was Harry who introduced Marianne to Paul all those years ago – and the quieter, more laid back man seems to be more her speed, much to the chagrin of Harry, who thinks he’s a dullard.
All of these characters will have a chance to pair off at one point or another in scenes dripping with sexual tension – yes, even between father and daughter. Each of these interactions feel like they could either end in sex or violence, even if the dialogue seems rather innocent quite often. The four performances are all brilliant, in very different ways. Fiennes has no issues going completely over-the-top as Harry, and he can be a whirling dervish of unbridled energy. In his scenes with Swinton though, darker sides come out – he isn’t “on” as it were, but lets his real motivations for being there come out in full force. He’s a man trying to go backwards in time – and seems frustrated that Marianne has moved on. She has real love for him, but can no longer keep up with him – or more accurately, no longer wants to. Schoenaerts is the brooding figure, hiding his past, which doesn’t work, since everyone already knows about it. He has the intensity of Tom Hardy, and seems on the verge of either exploding, or imploding, depending on what happens next. Dakota Johnson is terrific here – playing what is admittedly, a clichéd role – the young, flirty sexpot, who knows precisely what sort of power her sexuality has, and uses it to her advantage. 50 Shades of Grey was a horrible movie – but in it, Johnson showed some real talent. Here, it’s put too much better use.
The film is directed by Luca Guadagnino, who took far too long following his wonderful I Am Love (2010) with this film. Watching that film, I was reminded of Italian master Luchinio Visconti, with its luscious colors, and opulent settings, and it’s in portrait of the familial and political, all at once. A Bigger Splash is perhaps a warmer version of an Antonioni film – with its shallow characters not caring about anything outside of themselves. But Guadagnino admits something that Antonioni didn’t in some of those films – that living like this can be fun, not just an opportunity to drown in existential angst.
It’s almost a shame when the film takes some left turns in terms of plot in the third act, which is also when it strains itself a little bit to underline its points about these characters living in a bubble of their own making, that it doesn’t really need to. It’s almost as if after two acts of just inhabiting the same space as these characters, Guadagnino and his screenwriters felt the need to impose some sort of plot of the characters that isn’t needed. At the same time, we start to overhear muffled TV/radio reports about drowning migrants and refugees, exposing the audience to the real world that these characters refuse to engage with (if any of the characters hear these reports, they don’t acknowledge them). To a certain extent, these elements are perhaps necessary – or else many would think that it’s the film, not the characters, who are oblivious to them. But they are rather ham fisted in adding them.
Overall though, A Bigger Splash works remarkably well – anchored by four great performances, and a director who knows just what to do with them – and the camera. It doesn’t reach the heights of I Am Love – but it comes close enough.