A Bigger Splash
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Simultaneously about everything and nothing, Luca Guadagnino’s luscious A Bigger Splash is a glossy paen to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, here the seaside affairs of an international rock star (Tilda Swinton) entangled in a hothouse of temptation. What it lacks in narrative momentum it makes up for in passion and style and mood, which is almost enough.
We first meet music icon Marianne Lane (Swinton) onstage before thousands of adoring fans, a glam-rock vision in glitter pantsuit and Bowie-striped eye paint. But after vocal cord surgery renders her virtually speechless, the star and devoted boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, impossibly handsome) retire to the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria for some rest and relaxation.
Slathering each other with mud by the seaside and cavorting nude around the pool piqued by bouts of intense lovemaking, all is perfection but for the occasional patio snake threatening to intrude—symbolism alert—which protector Paul promptly hurls out of paradise. There will be more snakes, and lizards, of the reptilian variety as well as others, to come.
The passion bubble bursts upon the arrival of Marianne’s former lover Harry, an alpha tomcat played by a wily Ralph Fiennes with amped-up, Bacchanalian verve. Harry, a once-famed music producer responsible for helping to build Marianne’s career as well as that of The Rolling Stones, blows into the lovers’ villa, bringing with him the escalating island winds, raining dirt.
He also brings his mysterious, 22-year-old, bottle-blonde daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), a latter day, come hither Lolita in cutoffs, emanating waves of carnality for anyone in her sphere. This includes her father, whom she appears to have just met, and whom she clinches in an eyebrow-raising tête-à-tête of public karaoke to the strains of Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable.
With this foursome there is much splashing to be made in the villa’s pool, and like Francois Ozon’s intriguing 2003 mystery Swimming Pool, much of the picture revolves around this location and various degrees of repose and competition, allowing for copious nudity by the entire cast, particularly Fiennes, who goes gonzo full-frontal throughout. These indulgences, including the exotic preparation of seafood dishes intercut with the quartet’s decadence, comprise Guadagnino’s best moments here and the raisons d’être for this picture.
Speaking of indulgences, Fiennes also owns the film’s bravura sequence, a ribald, communal dance to a scratchy LP of The Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue, and one that gets at the entire vibe, current and point of this movie, which is a sort of exalted hedonism and unabashed sensuality. Never has the actor been so carefree and unrestrained, liberated even, and Fiennes walks away with the film in a performance which deserves serious awards consideration.
Screenwriter Dave Kajganich provides but a cursory plot outline. Former lovers, Harry still harbors a flame for Marianne. In brief flashbacks, the screenplay gives us a thin origin story of musical collaboration, passion, drugs and backstage drama (allowing Swinton some dialogue). It also announces the arrival of documentarian Paul, whom Harry befriends before matchmaking with Marianne, the beginning of what will be an enduring, nurturing relationship he lives to rue.
But does Marianne feel the same about Harry? And what of Paul, tempted by Penelope into long hikes and naked swims? There is trouble brewing in paradise, and the picture escalates the stakes to include the island’s increasing number of migrants and refugees, its denizens housed in a holding camp next to the local police station.
The final quarter of A Bigger Splash introduces some routine plotting that leads to a police procedural necessary, I suppose, to tie up the loosely structured plot, but which considerably diffuses the mostly sustained aura of pleasure. Inspired by 1969’s Alain Delon-starrer La Piscine and a lesser cousin to their superb 2009 collaboration I Am Love, Guadagnino and Swinton deliver a curious picture that will confound audiences looking for identifiable character motivations and story arcs.
And good as the actress is at wordlessly conveying contentment, confusion and even black humor during a would-be shocking late moment, we are left to fill in the blanks as to why Marianne might still be attracted to at-times boorish Harry. Ditto how seemingly devoted Paul might stray with Penelope and, frankly, why Penelope does anything she does, delicious as it is to watch, particularly in the denouement.
Johnson, solid in last year’s howler Fifty Shades of Grey, is physically alluring here but vocally awkward, a touch out of her depth with her three costars. Nonetheless, her Penelope still packs a hypnotic punch, even if she ultimately doesn’t make a lick of sense.
A Bigger Splash is a movie about cliffside dining at sunset, fierce lovemaking in darkened nooks, alpha and beta male aggressions, primal rock and roll, the taste of homemade ricotta and the conspiring of natural elements—sun, sand, wind, torrents and currents of sex—to expose buried impulses, both carnal and violent.