A Bigger Splash Review
Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash is what it is. This is a twisty, sex-filled melodrama that fits securely into the Rich People Being Naughty genre. That said, I happen to love this kind of thing when it’s done well, and I found this to be thoroughly absorbing and fun. A loose adaptation of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969), A Bigger Splash is a British-Italian production which derives its title from David Hockney’s famous 1968 pop art painting, which depicts a violent splash upsetting a calm, sunny pool house landscape.
The film is aptly titled; the big splash of A Bigger Splash is Ralph Fiennes’s Harry Hawkes, an over-the-hill A-list record producer who appears unannounced for an extended visit at the Italian villa home of happily coupled Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Harry is an old flame of Marianne, who is a famous rock star recovering from vocal chord surgery. As if this weren’t enough to cause some tension, Harry has arrived with attractive young Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who he claims is his newly discovered illegitimate daughter. Steamy, soapy melodrama ensues.
Fortunately for us, this melodrama is uniquely vibrant and textured. Luca Guagagnino is a sensual filmmaker. By that, I don’t just mean his films are filled with sex, though they are. His films appeal to all five human senses. One would typically just think of films as covering sight and sound, but Guadagnino’s work radiates with all varieties of sensory delights. His previous film, which also starred Swinton, I Am Love, was a transcendent drama about a woman who falls in love with a chef. A Bigger Splash is filled to the brim with beautiful scenery, music, naked bodies, architecture, and even food. There is a scene in which Marianne’s maid prepares a dish of an entire fish cooked within a loaf of bread that I will readily admit had me salivating, swooning.
Guadagnino’s irresistibly appealing audiovisual palette is complemented by four very fine performances from the leads. The director enjoyed working with them so much that all four have been cast in his upcoming remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria; I must say I’m really looking forward to that. Swinton, one of our most versatile actors, is clearly Guadagnino’s muse, and he pushes this veteran actress into new territory every time he works with her. Here, Swinton delivers a mostly wordless performance. It was her idea to make Marianne a rock star who can’t speak in this update, and it adds greatly to the dynamic. Dakota Johnson also shines here, as a dangerous Lolita-type with a hidden agenda. It’s a shame that Johnson was introduced to the world in the joyless, sexist stinker Fifty Shades of Grey, but I’m completely confident that she will have a long and remarkable career. She has great presence and surgeon-like comic timing. Schoenaerts, known for his rugged and masculine physicality since his international breakout in Rust and Bone, brings a believable earthiness to Paul. He’s a wounded puppy dog, as Harry puts it, a “bear” who hibernates with Marianne.
This is the Ralph Fiennes show, though. Something has shifted in Fiennes in recent years, and a great actor has become even more free and fearless. He showed a new side of his comedic talents, a little bit unhinged. He builds on that here, and it’s stunningly entertaining to watch. Harry is an insufferable motormouth houseguest-from-hell, and his banter with mute Marianne is captivating and often very funny. The centerpiece of A Bigger Splash features a scantily-clad Fiennes dancing with reckless abandon and mad joy to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue”; it’s sure to go down in history as one of the all-time great lip-syncing sequences.
The plot gets silly in the final reel. Frankly this whole movie is rather silly. It’s also never less than compelling and wildly entertaining.
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