A Bigger Splash, the latest erotic-thriller from Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino, is an sexually-charged, sun-baked, stylistically jacked-up erotic thriller loosely based on 1969 film, ‘La Piscine’ starring Alain Delon. Working from a modest budget, a hot cast and the natural splendours of the remote, picturesque Italian island of Pantelleria, Guadagnino’s film is an unusual concoction of tones, textures and dynamics; beautiful people with years of privilege and success, painful pasts and restless passions.
The off-the-grid vacation of a famous rock star, Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), and her filmmaker boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), is disrupted by the unexpected visit of Marianne’s old friend and music producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his salacious young daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Recovering from potentially career-ending surgery to her larynx, which has left her unable to speak, Marianne and Paul’s inhibition-free R&R is sent into turmoil when Harry announces his touchdown minutes from the tarmac. He is a whirlwind of energy; a rambunctious, sexed-up lothario whose past with Marianne runs deep. Penelope is a curious guest – the daughter only recently discovered by Harry, and previously unknown to Marianne.
Timely flashbacks answer questions about their shared past – the rockstar partying ways of Marianne and Harry, and the film project that introduced Harry and Paul and launched their friendship – and as they share company, with seductions running rampant, the dynamic between the foursome comes increasingly tense and unpredictable.
Ralph Fiennes is electrifying here; a hot mess of raw emotion, charisma and energy. His character, as narcissistic and entitled as he is, becomes a welcome presence on-screen. He is, by far, the most interesting character. Swinton is always compelling, but even as a mostly mute David Bowie-esque rock-n-roll maverick I found this to be one of her less interesting roles. Her near-silent relationship with Paul becomes unexpectedly dull – perhaps representing their imperfect compatibility?
The normally imposing Belgian hunk Schoenaerts has his charisma sapped here, a passive man still in a state of psychological recovery from a recent trauma, overshadowed by Harry’s mission to whisk Marianne from him. The clear weak link in the cast – and she threatens to drown the entire film at times – is Johnson. Terrible. While this should have been a riveting collaboration there was something off about all of their chemistry. I’m not sold on the creative decision to have Marianne not speak; and every scene featuring Johnson and Schoenaerts feels awkward and unconvincing.
I liked Guadagnino’s last film, I Am Love, very much. Swinton’s performance, in which she speaks Italian with a Russian accent, is one of her best, and I was seduced by the intoxicating images and sexual chemistry. A Bigger Splash certainly isn’t short on innovative shots and cuts – there are wild, haphazard zooms on inanimate objects, strangely personal POVs (Paul’s reception to Harry is filtered by his sunglasses, which he has chosen not to remove), and swift, erratic cutting. Mundane scenes are given odd emphasis. The soundtrack – which features a lot of the Rolling Stones’ modest hits – is a lot of fun. But, the film’s eccentricities, and chaotic momentum, slips away in the final snooze-worthy final chapters that ask further questions, and shifts focus when it should have been wrapping up.
Though it has what will surely be one of the greatest scenes of the year, and Ralph Fiennes working on a whole other level, A Bigger Splash is aesthetically interesting and elusively mysterious for a while before succumbing to indulgence and a distinct lack of point, protracted to an exhausting length. Emotionally tangled, richly textured and obsessed with the bronzed bodies of its stars, it does have its appeal. It is a pity it also induces such a shrug-worthy response in the end.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer(s): David Kajganich (screenplay), Alain Page (story)
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson
Runtime: 124 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: March 24, 2016 (limited)