A Bigger Splash (London Film Festival 2015) Review
The French classic La Piscine starred Romy Schneider and Alain Delon, and was about a huis clos love quadrangle at a villa in Southern France. Director Luca Guadagnino reprises the story in A Bigger Splash, displacing the action to a southern Italian island. With an excellent and brilliantly acted first half, the film tails off in its dragged out, overly complicated conclusion.
In this version, Tilda Swinton plays Marianne, a rock star taking a career break following vocal surgery. Swinton exudes the star’s charisma while remaining nearly silent – revealing both her character’s inherent wildness and later acquired maturity. She and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are staying in a secluded villa, spending their days lazing about the swimming pool. Their tranquillity is interrupted by the arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), a music producer and Marianne’s former lover. With him is his recently discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).
Harry proves an irritating guest – inviting more friends to the house, crashing his car, and seeking to draw Marianne back into his arms. All the while, he tries to seduce everyone he meets. In a stunning performance, Ralph Fiennes trades in his usual grave form for bouncing, unhinged energy, preening and dancing around with complete abandon. Penelope is no better – Johnson plays up her insolence and eagerness to prove her adulthood, preferably by enticing Paul to her charms. Paul is an outsider to the group – as a documentary film-maker, he observes the neuroses of the others with a weary eye.
As tensions build up, the lives and concerns of the four are set in contrast with the migrant crisis on the island. Refugees are drowning off the coast and those that the authorities manage to rescue are closed off in internment camps. The island itself is not well off, a stark difference to Swinton’s elegant outfits and the characters’ comfortable lifestyles.
The soundtrack – a mix of the operatic and classic rock – amplifies the stakes among the four leads. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux has a good eye for capturing the island’s gorgeous countryside – a reminder of I Am Love, a previous collaboration with Guadagnino (and Swinton).
It’s a pity that the ending is so messy. The plot calls for a clean, cut-off conclusion. Instead, writer David Kajganich supplies a long, superfluous close with no real coherence. It is not clear what the last thirty minutes add to the film. Similarly, the flashbacks which pepper the story seem to have no purpose, beyond giving Swinton the chance to act in a normal voice.
A Bigger Splash is worth watching for Fiennes’ surprising energy, Swinton’s quiet elegance, and its steamy summery atmosphere. Otherwise, it’s unfortunate that its writing doesn’t follow through to the end.