Movie review: 'Bigger Splash’ comes up dry
“A Bigger Splash” is the kind of film that critics swoon over and the general public finds as exciting as watching a sloth marathon in slow motion.
It’s the kind of film where virtually nothing of consequence happens until the end. Instead, characters spend two hours wrestling with their inner demons and gazing at their outer navels. I suppose this passes for deep introspection as characters take turns participating in mental gymnastics. Intellectuals can’t resist this cerebral pablum.
Saving this film from dreg status are the top-drawer performances of Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton and the gorgeous Italian landscape. The movie takes place on the island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily, and the locale is so idyllic that the Italian tourist bureau could use the sumptuous cinematography by Yorick Le Saux as promotional material. Just excise the actors.
But, of course, there’s trouble in paradise as the well-to-do start acting like n'ere-do-wells.
Loosely based on the 1969 French film “La Piscine (“The Pool”) with its titled taken from a David Hockney painting, “A Bigger Splash” focuses on four people: Marianne Lane (Swinton), a rock star recovering from vocal surgery so that she hardly speaks throughout the entire film; her younger lover Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), a rehabbing documentary filmmaker; Harry Hawkes (Fiennes), a music producer and Marianne’s former lover; and Penelope (Dakota Johnson), Harry’s nymphet daughter whom he only recently discovered existed.
Marianne and Paul are vacationing on the island and totally enjoying a hedonistic lifestyle of sex, swimming and more sex. Then Harry shows up with Penelope uninvited, and there goes the intimacy. He’s loud, brash, obnoxious, but, as portrayed by Fiennes, fascinating. He turns bombast into an art form. With a lesser actor, Harry would have just been a jerk. With Fiennes, he’s an uninhibited whirlwind, acting like the sirocco that blows up dust on the island upon his arrival.
Paul is clearly irritated by Harry but does nothing except look peeved. Marianne, on the other hand, appears to be torn between lovers, feelin’ like a fool. Mary MacGregor, where are you? Anyway, it soon becomes apparent that Harry is on the island to try to win Marianne back – “You think I came here for the capers?' — even though he was the one who introduced Paul to her after realizing their relationship was on the rocks. Flashbacks fill in these narrative blanks. Marianne and Harry's scenes together provide the film's backbone with Swinton teaching a master class in acting through the power of expression. She is quite simply one of the most talented actresses working in film today, and if anyone decides to make a biopic about David Bowie, casting her as Bowie would not be a stretch.
As for Penelope, her sultry demeanor and come-on gaze indicate that she’s interested in only one thing – a three-letter word that begins with “s” and ends with “x” and the word isn’t 'sax.' Two reveals about her character at the end of the film make no sense. Perhaps someone can explain them to me. Sadly, Johnson and Schoenaerts give performances so wooden that they have termites salivating.
What tension exists in 'A Bigger Splash' can be found in this warped love rectangle. Will Harry win back Marianne? Will Paul put Harry in his place? Will Penelope seduce Paul – or Harry or Marianne or anyone with a pulse? Will Marianne stay with Paul?
Italian director Luca Guadagnino, working with a script by David Kajganich, does go for the grandiose, swinging for the fences with scenes designed to impart some kind of emotion or make some kind of statement about the past and present, the young and old, the bold and the beautiful. He just misses more than he connects.
Then out of nowhere, just when you think the film’s romantic intrigue should be enough, Guadagnino radically shifts the tone by sticking the migrant crisis into the mix. Hey, let’s juxtapose the lives of the down and out with the lives of the rich and famous. Fun and games versus life and death. Whoa, too heavy, man. And let’s also make the Italian police chief (Corrado Guzzanti) act so ineptly than he makes Inspector Clouseau look like Sherlock Holmes. Is this supposed to be funny? Ironic? How about ridiculous?
For the symbolism crowd, a snake makes a couple of appearances. Could it represent the devil in the Garden of Eden? Temptation? Sin? Fall from grace? Harry? Or maybe it’s just a reptile out for its morning constitutional. If you’re still awake at this point, you might care.
The soundtrack is subtle, too. Harry dances to The Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” and Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire” bounds into the fray for good measure. “You can jump into the fire, but you’ll never to be free,” Nilsson sings. “You can shake me up or I can break you down.” Can you dig it?
I was also underwhelmed by Guadagnino’s 2009 film “I Am Love,” also starring Swinton and also pleasing critics more than the public if you use the Rotten Tomatoes website as your guide. Perhaps Luca is a genius I just don’t get. He is certainly proving to be a master of esoteric indulgence as “A Bigger Splash” overflows with it.
“Don’t tolerate me!” Harry screams in one scene. The director might as well be screaming that at us.
“A Bigger Splash”
124 minutes long and rated “R” for graphic nudity, some strong sexual content, language and brief drug use.
It is directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by David Kajganich. It stars Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Matthew Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson.