A retired rock star, her ex-lover and a beautiful Italian island, with these elements director Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” provides us not only with gorgeous cinematography and fine lead performances but a thoughtful and enticing erotic psychological piece. It’s at times comedic and tragic, sexy and seductive but always infused with the romanticism of Mediterranean life.
Partially inspired by the 1969 French film “La Piscine”, “A Bigger Splash” manages to successfully create the idea of a paradise where all is not as it seems. For ex-rocker Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a Bowie-esque star, the days of packed stadiums and legions of screaming fans have been replaced with serene and idyllic afternoons on the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily. Along with partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), the voiceless Marianne (recovering from vocal surgery) has found the perfect wonderland.
Enter Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s former lover and record producer, who lands unexpectedly on the island after visiting Rome. With his 22-year-old daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow and a wide grin on his face Harry’s exuberance, mania and zest for life quickly perturb Marianne and Paul’s tranquil lifestyle into something more reminiscent of a 24-hour party. But what are Harry’s real intentions? Does he hope to steal Marianne from Paul and rekindle the past or is he simply a carefree lover unaware of the boundaries he crosses? As the film progresses we begin to understand (through flashbacks) the complex relationship Harry and Marianne share, while Penelope continues to seduce Paul in the hopes of a great conquest.Unfolding amongst the beauty of the island, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux captures the wide vistas and breathtaking colors of the terrain but also showcases the intimate settings of small Italian village life, often more alive than many would expect. The juxtaposition of Pantelleria’s stunning views and Harry’s increasingly meddling actions make for compelling viewing and make the audience question where exactly this story will peak. Indeed the culmination of the narrative is both inevitable yet surprising leaving us with just enough unanswered questions to allow us to speculate on many elements.
While the scenery is indeed pleasant to look at it the film would be merely a travel catalog if not for the curious characters and the wonderful portrayals of them particularly from Fiennes and Swinton. Fiennes’ scene-stealing turn as Harry is pure fun to watch and a great example of his versatility. From his chilling presence as a Nazi guard in “Schindler’s List” to his cold and vindictive personification of Lord Voldemort, Fiennes has often played the bad guy; while it may be argued that Harry is not particularly “good” his infectious joie de vivre is indisputable and Fiennes portrays it with ease and sincerity. It is easily one of his best roles in years and a great vehicle to show off and break away from potential typecasting of brooding serious roles. Swinton, mute for the majority of the film with the exception of a few hoarse sentences, does much with her limited dialogue expressing her simultaneous love and loathing for Harry and his intrusive ways with a great range of facial and physical expressions. Dakota Johnson’s Penelope is indeed sexy and desirable and perhaps more than her effort in “Fifty Shades of Grey”, but still her character remains the most mysterious of all.
“A Bigger Splash” is certainly an appropriate title in many ways; the calm and soothing landscape is quickly disrupted by the big splash that is Harry’s arrival and the rest of the film continues as the waves never fully retract. Fiennes’ performance is in ways a big splash for him and the roles he generally tackles, but ultimately it is director Guadagnino’s fascinating portrait of intersecting lives in the midst of scenic majesty that creates the biggest and most lasting splash.