StorylineIn A BIGGER SPLASH, the lives of a high profile couple, a famous rock star and a filmmaker, (Tilda Swinton and Matthias Schoenaerts) vacationing and recovering on the idyllic sun-drenched and remote Italian island of Pantelleria are disrupted by the unexpected visit of an old friend and his daughter (Ralph Fiennes and Dakota Johnson) - creating a whirlwind of jealousy, passion and, ultimately, danger for everyone involved.
While she rests her voice after throat surgery, a David Bowie-esque rock legend, Marianne (Tilda Swinton), and her documentary-filmmaker boyfriend of 6 years, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), relax in the remote Italian paradise of Pantelleria. Her record producer, mutual friend of both and former flame of Marianne, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), brings his estranged daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), to spend time with the couple and, mostly, interrupt the vacation. Tensions flare as Harry's ulterior motives to steal Marianne back after having 'given her' to Paul, while Penelope's relationships with her father and Paul come into question. Jacques Deray adapted this story once before in his 1969 film La Piscine, but Luca Guadagnino's 2015 iteration relies on its sharp sense for revelations of secrets and lies to draw us into its narrative and wrap us up in the impression of its characters. It works for the most part, but largely due to the efforts of the talented, committed cast.
It's films like A Bigger Splash that make us appreciate the largely underserved Ralph Fiennes. He showed comic potential as another Harry in In Bruges, and just last year his dry wit anchored the ensemble cast of The Grand Budapest Hotel, but he's a riot in A Bigger Splash. Having not seen any of Guadagnino's previous films, I wasn't expecting this to be so playfully comedic at first as it initially focuses on the awkwardness of the situation. Fortunately, as most of this is sourced from Fiennes's boorish behavior, he absolutely radiates off the screen, singing, dancing, and frequently stripping bare naked to swim. While this wouldn't have gotten Oscar attention even if it were still scheduled to release in 2015 with a more forgiving release strategy, a consecutive Best Actor in a Comedy Golden Globe nomination wouldn't have been out of the question, as Fiennes is hitting a new stride this decade which, somewhere down the line, should equate to the awards momentum he rode back in the 90s.
Tilda Swinton, an equally reliable talent, nearly measures up to Fiennes, but her character calls for a dialed-down approach that she's cut her teeth in already. As her character recovers from throat surgery, she's a near silent participant in most scenes, except when it's absolutely necessary to whisper or in its few and admittedly unnecessary flashbacks, which just paint what we already suspected rather than tell us anything new. Even silently, the nuances on her face are expertly controlled and she is the key to the balance of the heightened tone and raw emotion of the film. Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson, this decade's new kids in town, are certainly out of their depth compared to Swinton and Fiennes. While Schoenaerts appears convincingly irritated, he doesn't have the conviction to hit the high notes his character requires later. Johnson is firmly on the sidelines for the most part, but given a better film than Fifty Shades of Grey, she's guilty of chewing on every juicy line she gets to the point of indulgence. Both are mostly good, but notably outshined by their experienced counterparts.
However solid its cast may be, the film does struggle with a choppy edit. It's littered with distracting continuity errors, unnecessary jump cuts and unmotivated closeups and push-ins– the latter being mostly on delectable food and, of course, pools of water, though this may just be flourishes of Guadagnino's typical style. It captures the therapeutic atmosphere of its environment, and with the frequent nudity by its main foursome, the sensuality far outweighs the darkness that unfurrows in its latter passages. It takes a big leap of faith in its third act but it mostly suffers from a lack of conclusiveness than its thrills and tonal shift. While the entangled web of these characters' pasts is intriguing and engaging, it doesn't appear to have a consistent point to make outside of the nature of temptation and recovery, two well travelled paths. A Bigger Splash is ultimately a mixed bag of hits and misses, but it'll find a passionate niche that will embrace it for its more tantalizing sequences.