A Bigger Splash
Slow-burning, sexually provocative drama sends viewers on a wild trip to paradise
A Bigger Splash
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson
Like a drunken tour guide, the eccentric erotic drama A Bigger Splash takes you places you aren’t expecting to go and maybe don’t want to. But in the end, you can’t say you didn’t have an adventure and see some sights you wouldn’t have on an ordinary, mainstream, perfectly sober expedition. So take off your pants and have a cocktail. We’re about to go places.
Our first stop is the tiny, picturesque island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily. Alternately lush, desert-like and volcanic, it’s the sort of wildly exotic place you’d expect to find rich Europeans lounging. Here we meet rich lounging European Marianne Lane, a well-aged but famously androgynous glam rock star (Tilda Swinton—duh to that casting), who’s come here to recover from vocal cord surgery. Accompanying her is her longtime lover, a documentary filmmaker named Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts from Rust and Bone, Far From the Madding Crowd and The Danish Girl). Marianne and Paul spend their days lying naked around the pool and otherwise recuperating from an exhausting schedule of being rich and famous.
The peace of their calm vacation is fractured, however, when they get a phone call from old friend Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes). Harry is a legendary rock ’n’ roll record producer and Marianne’s former lover. He shows up, unbidden, with a “surprise” in tow—the young, ridiculously nubile daughter he never knew he had. Penelope (Dakota Johnson, evidently still horny after 50 Shades of Grey) tags along, teeny bikini at the ready and lips set to a permanent, seductive pout. Begrudgingly, Marianne and Paul welcome Harry and Penelope into their well-isolated vacation home. That’s when the fun and games begin.
A Bigger Splash shares a number of elements with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s erotic Mediterranean idyll By the Sea. Whereas that particular film was stultifying, pretentious to a fault and seemingly angry at its own existence, A Bigger Splash is tinged with mystery and a palpable lust for life. Plus, it looks really pretty. Plus everybody takes their clothes off a lot. Director Luca Gaudagnino (I Am Love) does tip his hand with the occasional over-obvious symbolism (serpents and fruit, oh my!). Perhaps he knows just how ridiculous this sexy potboiler could easily become (a lower caliber of actor and a seedier setting and this is totally a late-night Cinemax flick). As a result, he isn’t afraid to occasionally wink at the audience and let things ride off the rails. (His self-conscious employment of crash zooms and ominous musical score ties this directly to Euro exploitation flicks of the 1970s.) No matter what the tone, however, Guadagnino keeps the jealousy, intrigue, romance and carnality flowing like champagne on a cruise ship.
The film is actually a loose remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 thriller La Piscine starring Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin. (Damn, that’s a tasty collection of actors.) Swinton obviously took her role for the challenge of playing a character who’s basically unable to speak the entire film. She emotes exceptionally well, however, with hands and facial expression and the occasional hoarse whisper. Fiennes is a blast to watch as the loud, libidinous party crasher. Harry is the sort of old pal who shows up on your doorstep occasionally, bottle of wine in hand and ready to party his balls off. His arrival kicks off a nostalgic trip back in time, causing Marianne to wonder if she’s become too straight and domesticated for a gender-bending rock goddess. Paul, meanwhile—fighting off his own demons of the past—finds himself distracted by the Lolita-like charms of Penelope.
Where this all goes and where it all ends is best left to the twists and turns of the script—though it must be admitted that the lengthy film (two hours and five minutes) takes its sweet time settling into a storyline and a genre. Viewers are advised to simply relax and view the film as a randier version of Paul Bowles’ work, a character study in exotic locations and erotic distractions. Ultimately, slim story of waxing and waning libidos aside, it’s a compelling showcase for the actors—all of whom are obviously enjoying their Italian vacation and the chance to emote all over one another. The sight of normally stoic Ralph Fiennes rocking out like a maniac to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” is probably worth the trip alone. A Bigger Splash may not have momentum on its side or an ending worthy of the provacative promise of earlier reels, but it does have some damn fine actors, a gorgeous setting and Ralph Fiennes’ dong. Who are you to argue with that?