Film & Television

‘A Bigger Splash’: Mythology, Rock ’n’ Roll and the Houseguest from Hell

fafbcefaadb938b26bb29aa11358b633If you’re looking for light summertime entertainment, you may want to stay clear of A Bigger Splash. As the poster suggests, the first half of director Luca Guadagnino’s electrifying new movie is a protracted study of privileged people doing nothing — very stylishly — on an Italian island. But, just because they’re lounging by the pool or lingering over an al fresco meal (or having what appears to be non-stop sex) doesn’t mean we get to relax. There is too much work to be done.

Guadagnino expects a lot from his audience. And delivers much in return.

The movie starts quietly. Rock superstar Marianne (a luminous Tilda Swinton) is recuperating from vocal cord surgery on the volcanic island of Pantelleria with her nurturing lover Paul (sweet hunk Matthias Schoenaerts). Their idyllic retreat is jarringly interrupted by the arrival of her old lover and producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes, magnetic and brutish) and his nubile young companion Penelope (a slyly seductive Dakota Johnson), who turns out to be the daughter he didn’t know he had. From there, the tension mounts slowly as the four circle each other hiding repressed desires and ulterior motives behind veiled innuendo and designer sunglasses.

The movie is based on the 1969 French thriller La Piscine (“The Swimming Pool”) and it comes across as deliberately mythic in both its location and characterizations. Heroine Marianne has lost her identity as well as her voice. Paul, although a noble soul, is fatally flawed. Penelope is a tempting siren. And, Harry is a larger-than-life Dionysus, the embodiment of appetites, lust and madness. Guadagnino weaves in Judeo-Christian images as well, from a weathered festival Madonna paraded down a village street to insidious snakes (animal and human) that intrude upon Marianne’s Eden. The island itself plays a critical role in the story. On the one hand, it offers an untouched wilderness. On the other, it hosts some baser aspects of human civilization: smoky pool halls and refugee immigrants caged like animals by the local authorities.

A series of brief pre-island flashbacks illuminate Marianne’s legendary past as well as her relationships with both Harry and Paul. In a packed stadium, she’s depicted as an avant garde rock goddess; she looks like the love child of Chrissie Hynde and David Bowie. Swinton, all angles and alabaster skin, is unworldly in concert, a stark contrast to the quiet Dior-clad woman she’s become off-stage. “You’re very domesticated for a rock star,” Penelope sneers.

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