A Bigger Splash (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use
Running Time: 125 min.
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson, Lily McMenamy, Aurore Clement
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenplay: David Kajganich (based on the 1969 film, La Piscine, from an original story bu by Alain Paige)
Review published May 30, 2016
Tilda Swinton (Trainwreck, The Grand Budapest Hotel) stars as Marianne Lane, a Bowie-esque,world renown rock star who is on vacation with Paul (Schoenaerts, The Danish Girl), her documentarian boyfriend of six years, on Pantelleria, a small, secluded Mediterranean island off between the coasts of Sicily and Tunisia. Marianne is there for some R&R from her most recent tour, in recovery from surgery on her throat that she is hoping will be successful so that she can resume her singing career. Their "alone time" is soon ended by the arrival of her rambunctious previous lover and legendary music producer Harry Hawkes (Fiennes, Hail Caesar!), along with the grown daughter Harry has only recently discovered, Penelope (Johnson, How to Be Single), ostensibly as a friendly visit, but it soon becomes apparent that they're seeking to cause division in the relationship for their own ends.
A Bigger Splash is directed with a fetishistic eye for the human form and exotic locales by Luca Guadagnino, following up after six long years from his highly regarded 2009 film, I Am Love (which also features Swinton, as does his 1999 debut feature, The Protagonists). Guadagnino is loosely remaking a 1969 French film called La Piscine ("The Swimming Pool"), a psychological drama that throws back to the kind of cynical relationship dramas that were once popular in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s, but they don't make often in film form anymore. This one's better than Angelina Jolie's By the Sea, at the very least. It's a subtle drama showing how sexual and romantic entanglements are sometimes never fully divorced from, and how the politics of the situation among people who must share quarters with those feelings can cause a host of snarls to become more knotted as they cut one another with their words and deeds, sometimes out of anger or jealousy, and sometimes just for one's own amusment.
With an allusion to the Biblical Garden of Eden and the many temptations that resulted in the fall of the world's first happy couple, one gets the filling of trouble-in-paradise early on as their idyllic summer abode is persistent encroached upon by snakes and other slithering creatures, not the least of which is Harry, the manipulator, and the forbidden fruit of the young woman he has in tow. The Rolling Stones' late 1970s hit, "Emotional Rescue", gets a couple of nods, including Ralph Fiennes summoning his inner Mick Jagger during a manic performance while the song plays on the turntable, echoing the feeling of at least one, if not more, of the characters who feel like they're saving someone else from a life of emotional disappointment. Also getting a nod is the song, "Moon is Up" from the Stones' "Voodoo Lounge" album in which they wanted to do the track without drums, opting to play by banging brushes against a metal trash can. In a way, one can make the connection to the film itself, in which Tilda Swinton agreed to play the role of Marianne if her voice is never heard, giving her character a throat surgery recovery angle that effectively makes her play the entire role with body language, save for a few choice moments when she must speak, albeit in a nearly inaudible whisper.
The film benefits from its attractive and adept cast who flesh out their respective characters with richly defined subtlety. Ralph Fiennes is at his charismatic best, playing the id-dominated motor-mouth who is perpetually disregarding the lines of decency whenever it gets in the way of whatever he might be wanting or needing at any given moment. In the past, he used to hide it better, but now he's at an age where he feels better off to just let it all hang out without the exhausting effort required to hide his multitudinous flaws. By contrast, Schoenaerts' rehabilitated Paul is a man who finds he must set up and firmly adhere to boundaries to function, having a past filled with drinking, vice, and depression -- he's seen as a bit of a party pooper compared to Harry, but knows that fun often comes with a price to pay. Swinton's nearly voiceless Marianne is caught in between, loving all of the spirit and life that he brings out of every situation, but she's also been down that road before, knowing he's not a man who ultimately can be relied upon to look out for either of their best interests. Dakota Johnson, filling in at the last moment in a role meant for Margot Robbie, is the wild card, who keeps mostly to herself, and who is unknown even by her own father until the last year; she seems to have her own desires, but it's not always clear for the young woman just what she can do about them.
Alas, the tonally awkward ending of the film puts a lesser supporting cast on the screen too much, introducing subplots involving unrest among refugees that don't shake out well with the rest of it, causing the storytelling to become less than satisfying for these characters given the steady simmer of the dramatic build-up without these elements. However, the journey is still enriching enough to forgive the underwhelming qualities of its destination, such that A Bigger Splash remains a beguiling and sometimes fascinating look at the poisonous nature of love turned sour, and longing left unresolved.
©2016 Vince Leo