A Bigger Splash (2016)
dir. Luca Guadagnino
written by: David Kajganich, Alain Page
starring: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson
3.75 out of 4 stars
Few actors get me more excited lately than Tilda Swinton and Matthias Schoenaerts, and with news of them teaming with I Am Love auteur Luca Guadagnino spurred my interest with nerve-rattling anticipation. For their film A Bigger Splash, the English language debut from the Italian team, we find a quartet of sexually charged individuals facing their past indiscretions and future desires.
During recovery from throat surgery, rockstar Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is vacationing on a Mediterranean island with her lover Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Belgian documentary filmmaker. Unexpectedly, Marianne’s former lover and producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) crashes the recuperation, bringing along his long separated daughter Penelope Lannier (Dakota Johnson). The quartet meander the island testing their relationships with sexual exuberance.
Guadagnino, avoiding the poorly phrased pitfalls of Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth and Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, acquires this adaptation of Alain Paige’s La Piscine from English language screenwriter David Kajganich (True Story), a script ripe with sexual intrigue and subtle, jaw dropping jabs. By blending just enough backstory behind multilayered performances, Guadagnino and Kajganich provide fun along with struggles for the increasingly tense weekend. As Harry attempts to control his manic energy, the strain between Marianne, Paul, Penelope, and Harry stretches more than Marianne’s scarred vocal chords. Temptation is ever present between the Marianne and the men who love her and the interloping saucy minx that is Penelope. As Kajganich intersperses musical allegory with seeping sexuality, we find a titillating, artfully designed story captured with breakneck pacing by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (Swinton experienced in Julia, I Am Love, and Only Lovers Left Alive) and editor Walter Fasano, the scene juggling master of I Am Love. Interspersing the objects surrounding their lives, the spectacle of this human story takes on an exotic, nearly surreal feeling.
Unsurprisingly, the performances are impressive. With minimal dialogue, and the few bits she has are whispers and croaks, Tilda Swinton emotes with exuberance. Every breath and gesture speak volumes of Marianne’s history and powerful presence. As Penelope notes, when stepping back Marianne appears to be all but a domesticized rockstar, lost her edge with the pleasure of Paul’s presence. As the camera nears, particularly in a hushed exchange with Harry in an alley, we find the past injuries that have led to her defensive demeanor. A sideways glance can stab more than a lengthy monologue. Swinton, as usual, is a glorious wonder!
Ralph Fiennes, quite the opposite, presents his dancing, singing Harry Hawkes with manic zeal. Producer for acts such as the Rolling Stones, he lives in a constant state of reliving his glory days. Unabashed and foolhardy with confidence, Hawkes is an unceasing ball of energy, fueled by alcohol and semen, with little regard for the desires of others. Overbearing in his vernacular and his choices, Fiennes portrays a man barely holding on to connections in his life; his choices have greatly affected his relationships but Fiennes keeps all of that bottled inside, released through stripping and grooving.
Able to rise above solely sex symbol status, Matthias Schoenaerts proves again that he is a formidable leading man. More than a drool worthy body, Paul is a man in recovery, but unwaveringly committed and protective. Tempted from all sides, his devotion to Marianne is powerful. Action wise, he is the most immobile, but he maintains his demeanor as the rock in Marianne’s recovery, until he can no longer. The most surprising performance is certainly Dakota Johnson as Penelope. Coy, aloof and all the more alluring for it, Johnson is never afraid to bare it all. The actress smolders one moment and annoys as petulance overwhelms the young woman. Her biting opposition with Marianne reveals the jealous mean girl below her over confident skin. Daddy issues run deep with this one!
Erotic and thrilling, A Bigger Splash is a prime example of minimal exposition delivering maximum impact. Those tiny glances into the characters’ pasts reveals the mess they find themselves in for this vacation. No detail is left to chance. The costumes, as scarcely there as they are, and the intricately designed sets, complement the complicated members of the villa. Surprising and beautiful, this is not one to be missed.