Film & Television

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

Guadagnino has worked with Swinton before in 2009’s I Am Love.  He seems genuinely inspired by her and she is worthy of his (and our) attention. Silent for most of the new film (she has only a handful of lines, painfully whispered), Swinton proves herself one of our finest actresses.

She is well-matched by Guadagnino’s entire cast. Schoenaerts (last seen in The Danish Girl) adds an intense stillness to the story. A recovered alcoholic, he is nursing his own scars while caring for Marianne. Johnson holds her own and surprised me with a more nuanced performance than I expected. (I confess I was quick to dismiss her because of her movie star parents and rise to fame in the ridiculous soft-core Fifty Shades of Grey.) And, Ralph Fiennes is nothing short of volcanic.

As Harry, Fiennes is at once arrogant, offensive and irresistible.  A legendary record producer, he is always onstage, entertaining guests with elaborate stories, and impromptu wild dances. Strutting to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” he’s a beastly demigod. On this island, he’s Prospero and Caliban rolled into one. We realize quickly that he’s arrived to shake up Marianne and Paul’s happy home. “What,” he challenges his ex, “You thought I was here for the capers?” We want to hate him, but it’s hard to look away. The performance is virtuosic. And, much of it is in the — full frontal — nude.

As in his earlier Swinton film, Guadagnino presents sex up close and personal. There are no glimpses through gauzy curtains or polite cutaways. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is entirely appropriate here. And, sex and sexiness is not reserved for the young. Fienne is 53 and Swinton is 55. Both are completely at home and in tune with their bodies.

In fact, there is plenty of sexual tension to go around. Penelope sets her sights on Paul early on, while there is a decidedly creepy physical relationship between her and her father. (After they sing a suggestive karaoke version of “Unforgettable” together, a ruffian in the crowd shouts out “Can I have a turn after Daddy’s done with her?”) There’s some question as to whether Harry is pimping his daughter out to Paul in order to recapture Marianne. And, we are left with questions about who, if any of the characters are innocents.

“You’re obscene,” Paul accuses Harry with disgust later in the movie.

“We’re all obscene; everyone’s obscene. That’s the whole point.”

Even when the quartet aren’t seducing or sparring, A Bigger Splash builds up a distinct sense of danger. Guadagnino and screenwriter Dave Kajganich have woven together myriad cross-references, clues and complications; the movie evolves from a psychological character study to suspense reminiscent of Hitchcock. At one point, Harry mentions Brian Jones, the Stones guitarist found floating facedown in his pool. Marianne lounges poolside with James Agee’s A Death in the Family. Tunisian refugees drown trying to reach the island. Even a friendly swimming race between the two men feels ominous and weighty as they violently churn through the water. And, when the film reaches its inevitable climax, Swinton proves as adept at screaming in silent horror as she was reaching silent orgasms earlier.

A Bigger Splash is artistic, unusual and deeply affecting. But, despite the quality of the film’s direction, writing, casting and brilliant cinematography by Yorick Le Saux, it feels theatrical and deliberately artificial. These aren’t real people and the story isn’t anything that looks or feels like real life. There’s not a lot of exposition and as much —or more — is left unsaid as said. Guadagnino is inviting us to draw our own conclusions and to mull over what we’ve glimpsed and overheard. My companion and I were still talking about the movie two days after we saw it.

Marianne and Harry are modern-day gods, covered in glitter, living in the spotlight, fueled by cocaine. As superstars, they risk more than we do. But they’re also afforded privileges — whether that’s a table at a sold out taverna or a blind eye from the chief of police. Our rules aren’t theirs. And, they don’t have to follow them.

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