Simultaneously lush and
lurid, sumptuous and startling, “A Bigger Splash” never goes where you expect,
even as its undercurrent of danger is unmistakable from the start.
With the follow-up to
his landmark 2009 drama “I Am Love,” director Luca Guadagnino once again
reveals himself to be a master craftsman. He draws four beautiful and
well-balanced performances from his excellent cast, including brash, grandiose
work from Ralph Fiennes. What Fiennes does here feels like jazz itself: It’s
physical and primal, jumpy and funny in equal measure, and he manages to make
an annoying, demanding character thoroughly entertaining.
At the other end of the
spectrum is a fascinating, wordless performance from Tilda Swinton, the
exquisite star of “I Am Love.” She croaks out a whisper here and there (and
even a silent orgasm, standing up) which only adds to her perpetually
mysterious air. She does so much with those clear, blue eyes, that statuesque
presence and the confidence she exudes no matter what she’s wearing (or even
when she’s wearing nothing at all, which frequently is the case for all the
Rounding out the
foursome are Matthias Schoenaerts as Swinton’s hunky, younger lover and Dakota
Johnson as the slinky, seductive daughter Fiennes’ character only recently
realized he had. Their lengthy backstories and newfound alliances reveal
themselves over the course of a seemingly idyllic vacation at a picturesque
villa on the Italian island of Pantelleria, where the threat of a sirocco
stirring things up even further is constant.
Le Saux (who also shot Guadagnino’s gorgeous “I Am Love”) luxuriates in them
all as they bask and tangle in the sun and in and out of a swimming pool that
will become increasingly crucial as the film progresses. (“A Bigger Splash” is
a loose remake of the 1969 Jacques Deray film “La piscine.”) Schoenaerts’ pecs,
Johnson’s torso, Fiennes’ smile and even Swinton’s feet are all monuments to be
worshipped as much as the cool, blue Mediterranean Sea or the imposing volcanic
boulders that surround it.
Swinton stars as
Marianne Lane, a Bowie-esque rock star whom we first glimpse in metallic
sequins and face paint, taking the stage to the deafening chants of an adoring
stadium crowd. But soon, it’s clear that she’s forcing herself not to speak
much less sing; she and Schoenaerts’ Paul, a photographer and documentarian,
have retreated to this remote paradise to allow Marianne to rest and recover
Guadagnino, working from
a script by David Kajganich, efficiently and vividly establishes the bohemian
yet domesticated life Marianne and Paul have created for themselves, full of
nude sunbathing, midday lovemaking and long soaks in the nearby mud baths.
The noisy, unexpected
arrival of Fiennes’ Harry, Marianne’s longtime friend and record producer,
interrupts their reverie. Turns out Harry not only was Marianne’s lover for six
years, he’s also the man who introduced her to Paul (and gave them his blessing to
launch into their own romance—a decision he now regrets). Harry has shown up
with the blonde, leggy Penelope (Johnson), who alternates between making
insults and inappropriate come-ons. She insists she’s 22 although her impetuousness
suggests otherwise, and “A Bigger Splash” allows Johnson to be both funnier and
sexier than she was in “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Tensions mount as the
days pass, the wind blows harder and dustier and the villa seems to grow
smaller and more suffocating. Harry breaks through all that, though—or
perhaps he’s just oblivious by inviting random friends over, regaling them with
tales of his rock-music glory days, playing Rolling Stones records and showing
off his moves like Jagger. This sequence may actually be the highlight in a
movie filled with strong and striking visuals: the sight of Fiennes in an
unbuttoned shirt and swim trunks joyously letting “Emotional Rescue” radiate
from every fiber in his being. He’s never been so much fun to watch—not even
when he got to vamp it up as Voldemort.
Guadagnino ratchets up
the feeling of claustrophobia with extreme close-ups that ignite the senses:
hands gutting a fish or peeling fruit, eyes as they survey the other
characters, a mouth moving with non-stop chatter and laughter. Marianne
could easily be a contemporary rock-star—Swinton is a timeless and towering
figure, after all—but Guadagnino’s use of zooms and pans suggests an homage
to European psychological dramas like the film’s source material. He’s created
a concoction that’s sexy and strange all at once.
But then “A Bigger
Splash” goes slack and silly toward the end, just as it should be at its most
gripping. A ghastly discovery almost seems like it’s being played for laughs.
In fact, because the film is so precise for long in both its beauty and its
weirdness, the tonal shift toward uncomfortable farce feels that much more
disappointing. Guadagnino also tries to drop in hints about the plight of
Tunisian refugees arriving on the island seeking sanctuary
but they never really resonate or cohere with the story as a whole.
“A Bigger Splash” might
be intended as a cautionary tale about the perils of being white, beautiful and
privileged—but it’ll probably register more as a dazzling escape.