3. A Bigger Splash. Luca Guadagnino. Italy/France.
Enthralling, vibrant, and chic, A Bigger Splash harkens back to another time in cinema, when whatever qualified as “arthouse cinema” was fun and populated by pan-European sex romps in exotic locales (not exclusively, of course). It falls into the all-too-common category of “style over substance,” but certainly not in the pejorative sense. Luca Guadagnino’s sumptuous follow-up to his international hit I Am Love (Io sono l’amore) reteams him with his muse Tilda Swinton for this loose remake of Jacques Deray’s La piscine from 1969, which starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, and Jane Birkin.
Swinton plays Marianne Lane, an international rock icon (think Chrissie Hynde or PJ Harvey by way of David Bowie), recovering from throat surgery on the volcanic isle of Pantelleria with her documentarian partner, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Their idyllic vacation is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Marianne’s ex, a flamboyant record producer named Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), who has brought his American daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) along for the trip after only recently becoming aware of her existence. Erotic intrigue and immeasurable tensions arise, as expected, and Guadagnino captures all of this with virtuoso through a camera that almost never stops moving. On merely a visual level, A Bigger Splash is electrifying (and not just Swinton donned in stunning, backless Dior outfits throughout). The camera itself, lensed by French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (who previously shot poolside flesh in François Ozon’s Swimming Pool), becomes a character in itself, and there’s something invigorating about the way the camera lusts over all four of its central characters, instead of just the expected gaze toward the teenage girl.
What A Bigger Splash has to say about the world is somewhat inconsequential. What’s more important is the manner in which it speaks, and it ultimately results in an exhilarating exercise in “cinema.” It’s unapologetically stylish for the sake of style, and that’s not something I see very often these days. The exploits of a quartet of privileged white people frolicking on an island in the Mediterranean could have been a tedious display of triviality. But the characters in A Bigger Splash are larger than the film itself. We only get pieces, glimpses of their rich histories, their personal motives, their prevailing insecurities… the film seems to capture a fateful moment in time where their paths have intersected, for better or worse.
Throughout the film, the quartet divides into a number of fascinating triangles, the most recognizable of which being the trio of pensive/quiet introverts—Penelope, Marianne, Paul—at direct angle against Harry’s constant stream of talking, singing, and dancing. He’s all the noise in A Bigger Splash; not a word is uttered until he calls Marianne to announce his arrival (and even then he doesn’t let Paul get a word in), and you wonder if anyone would actually say anything to one another if he weren’t around. But through these triangles, Penelope emerges as the most intriguing figure, perhaps because she has the least at stake, emotionally speaking, and yet appears to be constantly scheming and conjuring up trouble… and for what? Her own enjoyment? Playing Penelope was probably the smartest career move for Johnson following Fifty Shades of Grey; for all the flack I read about her performance in that, she’s used magnificently here as the precocious American youth. Even when certain strange epiphanies about her are revealed, they really have no bearing on the plot at hand. Instead, Penelope feels like the villain of a totally different movie sitting maliciously on the sidelines of A Bigger Splash.
The film received lukewarm reception from the Italian critics when it premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival last fall, and it never received the kind of attention it deserved when it was released stateside this spring. I’m still a little perplexed as to why (though I’m sure the Italian press wasn’t pleased about a major national production starring two Brits, a Belgian, and an American). Guadagnino’s next project is the remake we’ve all been dreading for years: Dario Argento’s Suspiria (which is thankfully long out of David Gordon Green’s hands, despite rumors that Isabelle Huppert was initially onboard). Like Denis Villeneuve at the helm of the Blade Runner sequel, Guadagnino is the only director whose bold cinematic stylings could actually add something to Argento’s classic horror flick and he has Swinton and Johnson returning as well. I can only hope A Bigger Splash will someday get the appreciation it rightfully deserves.
A Bigger Splash was released earlier this year theatrically and is currently available streaming on demand from Fox Searchlight in the U.S.
With: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, Aurore Clément, Lily McMenamy, Elena Bucci, Corrado Guzzanti