Ripples disrupt calm waters but which event caused the biggest splash? There are several candidates in Luca Guadagnino’s first film since 2009’s I Am Love, reuniting him with Tilda Swinton for sun kissed turmoil on the Italian island of Pantelleria.
That his new feature, a remake of the 1969 film La Piscine, can’t quite hit previous heights is not exactly a surprise. The bar was set ridiculously high, and the addition of Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson hardly lowered expectations. Fragmentary and ultimately rushed as it is, A Bigger Splash plays successfully with a broad canvas of emotions, dealing with issues ranging from age to infidelity, depression, and parenthood. A landscape flittering by behind that falls straight from a luxury holiday brochure is an added bonus.
There are two couples in the mix, and it’s the interactions between them all that drive events. Rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), currently mute from an operation to restore her voice, is holidaying in a sprawling villa with her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). They spend their days mostly nude, fucking and relaxing by the pool in turn. This idyll looks like stretching through the summer until Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his newly discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) arrive out of the blue. Harry, a record producer, used to date Marianne, and was also the person who set her up with filmmaker Paul. He’s out to win back his lost love, while Penelope, barely ever wearing much, although in this she’s hardly unique in film that adores the naked human body both male and female, has eyes for Paul.
It’s a volatile mix, one which threatens to blow at any time. The fun comes in watching the fuse gradually burn down. In an environment of bitter resentments and dredged up mistakes, it’s difficult to tell who might go first. Could Harry succeed in winning back his misplaced love, or might Penelope convince the placid Paul away from his vows of fidelity? There’s even a disturbing strand that hints at more between father and daughter.
Food plays a prominent part once again, both the preparation and consumption of. Otherwise, time is spent strolling the nearby town or relaxing with music. And talking, always talking. Conversation probes at weakness, throwing out suggestions and pouncing when someone else gives ground. Harry is the catalyst for much of this, and Fiennes is magnificent, a bundle of hyperactivity. He first appears shimmying through arrivals at the airport, and dashes around booming anecdotes and recommendations to all. The highlight is a wonderful dance to The Rolling Stones Emotional Rescue.
He might be the standout, but he’s run close. Swinton exudes charisma even without speech, her reactions more interesting as result, while Schoenaerts keeps himself contained, making the eventual fracturing of his façade even more of a wrench. Johnson is also good, revealing her obnoxious and highly sexual behaviour to be a front for deeper pain.
With characters coming and going at will, there’s a sense of drift, the story flowing away just when things start to get interesting. The languor of this island retreat sometimes becomes too encompassing. When the hurry-up comes near the end, a somewhat final turn of events doesn’t feel like it has earned its climax, and subsequent recriminations aren’t allowed time to settle.
Guadagnino has one final trick, pulling back the focus from these white, rich and privileged westerners, pushing forward fleeing migrants in their place. Perhaps the bigger splash is going on away from their internal bickering where the police let them do as they please while caging everyone else. It adds closing poignancy to this rich drama that might have gone missing otherwise.
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: David Kajganich (screenplay), Alain Page (story)
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton
Runtime: 120 min
Country: Italy, France