A Bigger Splash – Film Review by David Turpin
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: David Kajganich (screenplay), Alain Page (story)
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Starring Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson
Director Luca Guadagnino and leading lady Tilda Swinton follow their exquisite 2009 collaboration, I am Love, with another helping of glamorous erotic intrigue in A Bigger Splash. Adapted from Jacques Deray’s 1969 potboiler La Piscine, and named (somewhat inexplicably) after the famous David Hockney painting, A Bigger Splash is looser-limbed than I am Love, and ultimately less satisfying, but it offers a banquet of incidental pleasures, served up with a certain breezily sinister insouciance.
Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a fictitious rock icon triangulated from pieces of David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Chrissie Hynde. Recovering from vocal chord surgery – and consequently unable to raise her voice above a throaty whisper – she has repaired to the Italian island of Pantelleria, where she and her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) spend their days reading by the swimming pool and slathering each other in beautifying volcanic mud. Their peerlessly chic idyll is interrupted by a visit from Harry (Ralph Fiennes), Marianne’s former lover and business associate, who turns up uninvited with his sullenly provocative daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow.
Obviously, somebody is ending up face down in the swimming pool, but Guadagnino is far less interested in generating conventional suspense than he is in cooking up a series of sly frissons and tangy non-sequiturs. Hence, while A Bigger Splash is notionally a ‘thriller’, it’s more an opportunity to luxuriate in the beauty of Pantelleria, and in the company of Guadagnino’s very game cast, all of whom – with the possible exception of Schoenaerts – seem to be having a jolly good time with this fruity miasma of sexual jealousy and subterranean aggression.
Swinton, the fulcrum around whom the rest of the players move, clearly relishes the opportunity to perform without words. Always a self-contained performer, she has a few moments of near silent-movie grandeur here, as well as a number of displays of thrilling physical grace. While the film seems tailored to Swinton’s strengths, it also seems calculated to give Fiennes an opportunity to play against type – and his antic, obnoxious Harry is a sight to behold. Johnson – who might have made Fifty Shades of Grey watchable had it not been for her disastrous co-star – again demonstrates her ability to do a lot with a little. She draws out Penelope’s vapid malice, but also a few notes of humanity beneath her posturing. The burden of representing taciturn male sexiness falls to Schoenaerts and he obliges, but that’s about as far as he goes – while he and Swinton have a palpable sense of physical intimacy, his scenes with Fiennes feel a trifle imbalanced.
Apart from the central quartet, the ever-lovely Aurore Clément makes the most of a small role, while Corrado Guzzanti leans all the way into parody as the local Carabinieri. An attempt to draw the plight of illegal migrants into the story promises a sliver of harsh realism, but it hovers around the periphery, leaving the film’s glamorously soapy bubble largely un-pricked. Perhaps this is for the best – like his characters, Guadagnino deals mainly in ravishing surfaces, and is content to leave the story’s depths implicit, and tantalisingly unexplored. The title, in that respect, is entirely apt – the film is a big splash, rather than a deep dive. The best approach is simply to enjoy.