A sensuous European film (primarily told in English) about yearning, jealousy and rock ‘n roll set under the Mediterranean sun, the primary appeal of A Bigger Splash will be to an art house crowd. The movie’s starting point was the 1969 picture La Piscine, which starred Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. The director of A Bigger Splash, Luca Guadagnino, was intrigued by how desire drives the politics between men and women … how it can be destructive and productive and fertile.
Tilda Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a mega rock star who has just had a major throat operation that could mean she will never sing again. Nevertheless, she seems to be in a really good place – in love and living with Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is head over heels for her too after six years together. She is recuperating on the beautiful, sun-kissed Italian volcanic island of Pantelleria. Marianne’s career has been guided by iconic record producer and old flame Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), a huge Rolling Stones fan whose attitude to life is ‘live it to the fullest and have no regrets – just go wild’. While Marianne and Paul are happy in each other’s company, Harry flies in unexpectedly with his smokin’ hot 22-year-old daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). While Harry and Penelope have only recently connected, he still carries a torch for Marianne (who he was with for six years; but then he was the one who introduced her to Paul and basically said ‘go for it’).
As a producer, Harry had empowered Marianne. He figured they were cut from the same cloth, living in the same hysterical, self-destructive environment. He still does, but fails to understand that people can change. Marianne has a great deal of affection for Harry, but has moved on, while he tries to persuade her that Paul is far too conventional for her. Meanwhile, Penelope has her eyes squarely on Paul, whose own past is hardly clean. Paul’s countenance is the polar opposite of Harry’s, even though they have been mates for ages. He is withdrawn and gently paced in the wake of a suicide attempt.
Luca Guadagnino has crafted a film about beauty, longing, sex and sexuality, but also about the danger posed by an old love whose presence and actions can trigger destructive behavior. It is Harry who brings back the past. It is he who pushes the characters to the dark side. Safety is compromised and the key players descend to their most primal instincts. The story unfolds primarily in the present, but we – the audience – piece together more about the characters’ history through small flashbacks. What would a European film be without a fair display of nudity and, of course, specifically in this case it is, indeed, integral to the plot?
Fiennes’ character, Harry, is unquestionably a polarising figure, around whom events unfold. He throws himself into his role with reckless abandon, while the other three key personalities are far more restrained, but no less compelling.
A Bigger Splash tempts and teases us. Not all is spelt out. We have to work at it as we are left to fill in the pieces. Hardly conventional storytelling, it is elegant with a diverse and eclectic score that I, for one, certainly appreciated. Some prudent pruning wouldn’t have gone astray. It would have lost nothing if it was 20 minutes shorter. Still, rated MA, A Bigger Splash is not without its artistic appeal and scores a 7 out of 10. Available now on DVD, Blu-ray and via on-demand services.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television