A Bigger Splash Review: Sun-Baked Suspense

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Director Luca Guadagnino’s latest film is a gorgeously shot and expertly acted exercise in hedonism. Even though not all of the plot points come together at the end, A Bigger Splash is still a dazzling experience to behold.

The lifestyles of the rich and the famous are constant source of cinematic inspiration, but A Bigger Splash‘s take on the subject is easily one of the most unique. A modern reworking of the 1969’s La Piscine, the film follows Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), a supposedly aging rockstar—though Swinton has never looked better—who retreats with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) to a luxurious island near Sicily after undergoing vocal cord surgery. Everything about their trip is initially idyllic. They eat, sleep, swim, and have sex when they please without a worry in the world. So, naturally, it isn’t too long before trouble comes to find them.

It arrives in the form of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a music producer, and with his newly discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Through some brief, smartly executed flashbacks, we discern that Harry was not only Marianne’s former flame, but he also has been friends with Paul for quite some time, and is the one who introduced the two of them. Needless to say, it’s an unexpected visit.

What follows is a playful, but steadily-escalating drama that examines the consequences of giving in to baser human emotions. A lighthearted getaway quickly becomes a toxic situation for everyone involved. Serving as a juxtaposition to the darkness—and boy, do things get dark—are Guadagnino’s absolutely breathtaking visuals. Collaborating with cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, the director ensures that even when the characters are at their most miserable, everything looks beautiful. Almost every scene is basked in the warm glow of the island sun. The location shots, from the stunning villa where Marianne and Paul are staying to the hills, lagoons, and beaches nearby, serve as their own tourism ads. The actors all look incredible, with sun-kissed skin and enviable wardrobes from costume designer Giulia Piersanti. Guadagnino’s vision is so sumptuous and radiant that it’s almost too perfect, which is exactly his point. Looks can often be deceiving.

Still, A Bigger Splash isn’t all style. The characters may be living in a paradise, but they all feel wholly authentic thanks to the truly top-notch cast. Swinton is totally magnetic, doing more with a near-wordless performance—Marianne is supposed to be on vocal rest—than most actors could do with Shakespeare. Schoenaerts plays Paul with a quiet, haunting nuance, that really helps to sell his character’s harsh backstory. Johnson is immediately engaging as Penelope. Playing her as a vivacious Lolita, she’s funnier and sexier here than during any moment of 50 Shades of  Grey.

The real scene-stealer, though, is Fiennes, who bursts into the film like a bolt of lightning and never loses momentum on his manic, tempestuous delivery. Harry is a character who clearly has ulterior motives, and so every wink and smile that Fiennes produces is laced with the perfect hint of malice. His performance is the perfect match for Guadagnino’s frenetic camerawork, that’s heavy on surprising zooms and quick-pans to mirror the roller coaster of emotions on display. Harry might be irksome to almost everyone around him, but Fiennes makes it impossible for you not to be pulled into his deviousness.

Watching these characters attempt to behave like rational adults while their every impulse is to do the opposite is highly entertaining. The majority of the film plays out as a lighthearted romp, making a sinister third-act turn all the more surprising. There are a few road bumps as the movie attempts to navigate this more serious territory, but an interesting and powerful storytelling choice is made nonetheless.

Aside from this, there are some minor subplots that feel very out of place. The current European migrant crisis is reduced to white noise in the background on the TV and radio while lovers quarrels and friendly arguments happen at the forefront. The refugees eventually become a slightly larger part of the story towards the end, but their addition feels tacked-on and unnecessary. Guadagnino seems to want to convey how out-of-touch with reality these characters are, but what’s the point? It’s already evident from their extravagant lifestyle that they’re living in their own little bubble.

Additionally, a plot point about Harry and Penelope having a relationship that goes beyond the normal father-daughter bond is brought up and then poorly handled. It’s not a light subject to discuss, and the film gives it full attention for a single scene and then completely discards it. There are so many other interesting things going on, that it hardly matters, but I had to wonder, why have this in the movie at all?

These discrepancies in the narrative are confusing, but they do little to dampen the captivating nature of the film. A Bigger Splash is a lush character study, with some poignant observations on love and human nature. It’s executed by a group of people who know how to keep things fascinating. Certainly, it’s unlike any vacation I’ve ever been on. Grade: B+


By Mike Papirmeister

One Response to A Bigger Splash Review: Sun-Baked Suspense

  1. SherryAva says:

    Amazing review. The movie sounds like a feast for the eyes.

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