The erotic drama is a unique subgenre unto itself. There’s always been a stigma associated with it in terms of the inherent sleaze juxtaposed with often revealing explorations of lust, love, sex, sexuality and the specificity of emotions associated when two or more individuals connect or attempt to connect on a physical and/or emotional level. The infamous classic Nagisa Oshima film, In the Realm of the Senses made it a point to juxtapose his lead lovers’ fiery passion with their self-imposed solipsism. Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous A Bigger Splash sets itself in a rather “on the nose” yet still effective metaphor for this specific form of myopia and hedonism: most of the action takes place by a swimming pool on a private island surrounded by the sea. Essentially a riff on The Big Chill and 9 ½ Weeks, this vibrant tale is about the lustful intertwining love square between four individuals.
The individuals in question at the heart of film may have more control over their carnal desires than those found in the film’s often lurid and sleazy peers, but the debauchery on display comes from the same oft-explored focus on the need for us to find some form of real connection with one another, while our egos and bodies sometimes serve as tragic barriers. What makes A Bigger Splash unique is that we find larger than life characters behaving naturally (to them) as opposed to normal characters acting out in larger than life ways. These are not disillusioned suburbanites or WASPs struck by ennui, these are celebrities and dilettantes who spend an entire movie flirting, making love, fighting; all the while they remain oblivious to the rest of the world partially due to alienation unique to their status which but are mostly self imposed.
Call them shallow, but would anyone truly care to engage with the rest of the world when they can drape themselves over a lawn chair while pulling off a Dior outfit stitched from what is likely (in my mind) the fabric of celestial beings? The film gets its name from a famous David Hockney painting and it is a partial remake/homage to Jacques Deray’s 1969 Alain Delon “Eurotrash” film La Piscine. I first encountered Luca Guadagnino’s filmmaking with the 2009 feature I Am Love and this feels like an evolution of the ethos of that film such that one could easily have titled this film “I Am Lust.” More so than his last feature, A Bigger Splash forgoes some of the distance of the European “new wave” movement to whom it owes a great debt and instead embraces a more virile psychosexual eroticism and as such, while this film would be right at home in the 60s and 70s, there’s a liveliness about the film that could only have been conceived by a modern filmmaker who understands the nuances of that movement enough to make it their own. A Bigger Splash is cinema at its most sensuous: equal parts messy like an improv jazz romp, it hits a vivacious blend of sexiness, humor and even outright horror. Like any great jazz song it sometimes goes off key when it transitions but somehow Guadagnino finds a way to turn those squeaks into a rhythm that pleasures the senses.
As if she were coyly acknowledging critics & audiences fantasy of seeing her play music legend David Bowie in the inevitable biopic, Tilda Swinton (also star of Guadagino’s I Am Love) becomes a woman named Marianne Lane. In the film, she’s world-famous rock star whose image and style feels like an amalgamation of Bowie, Bjork and P.J. Harvey. After undergoing a risky surgery to repair her vocal chords, she travels with her hunky and much younger photographer boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) to a Mediterranean island getaway in order to recuperate outside of the public eye. This otherwise romantic interlude is interrupted by an uninvited guest from Mariannie’s past. Harry (Ralph Fiennes, whose dynamite performance we’ll get to in a bit) was once Marianne’s producer. They made beautiful music together and also passionate love. He’s brought along his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson, taking the chance to show off so much more of herself than she did in every way than in the movies like Fifty Shades of Grey she’s been relegated to). Their arrival plays up one of the integral themes of the movie, that one can find themselves the life of the party but that party could be one where everyone has left or is ready to.
If you haven’t stopped reading this review, no doubt to start watching the movie before continuing, let it be known that the majority of Swinton’s performance is non-verbal, dialogue-free and it’s a testament to her talents that she does more with her silence than some actors have done with pages of monologues. There was I time where I thought Swinton was overrated and largely skeptical of her critical acclaim; in her silence she has put my doubts to well…silence.
Now here’s the part where we get into Ralph Fiennes’ dynamite performance. There’s no underselling how Fiennes manages to still find the layered and somewhat tragicomic heft to a performance that could have easily become an irritating bacchanalian caricature. Fiennes, no stranger to playing characters with bald faced sinister ulterior motives finds a way to turn Harry’s hidden rage and resentment simmering beneath his hedonistic swagger into a naturalistic pathos. Every smile carries a dash of menace and even his show-stopping dance number becomes less about showing off Harry as the aging party boy and more as a performative gesture to his former love. It’s all a big show much as you are left to suspect the tagging along of his daughter, Penny. After all, one does call into question the motives of a man ready for some sort of sex-filled catharsis with a former flame who would bring a daughter he barely knows from another woman. It’s there where Guadagnino gets our minds racing: is Penny really his daughter? Are they bonding? Are they — gulp — having relations? Or is she really just that: a decoy for his true intentions? Penny may be Harry’s Trojan horse but that doesn’t make her any less of a fully fleshed (pun intended) character and Dakota Johnson plays here like a siren singing the most beautiful song doomed to leave her targets to metaphorical shipwreck. Johnson makes every syllable from Penny sound like she’s quoting the most titillating passages from a Harlequin novel.
Other filmmakers would have turned this into another par for the course “wealthy & attractive white people crisis” movie but Guadagnino miraculously transforms a repeated dish into an almost different 3 course meal. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux is back to collaborate with Guadagnino and their command over each frame has a sensual flair that creates an unreality, it’s almost fantastical the way they play with shots that feel just a hair too symmetrical to exist anywhere outside of cinema. Every emotion bursts onto the screen like fireworks, and the freehand rhythmic cuts keep things stylish and free of the risk of veering into drab realism. all of the fashion from the costumes to even the sunglasses of each character come to mask and reflect the characters’ often contradictory souls and intentions. The music selections, ranging from Harry Nilsson to Popol Vuh and even classic rock don’t just set the mood, they too express character.
The film takes some hard left turns but you almost get the sense it was intentional. What I mean is that it feels organic to Guadagnino’ juggling of his cast in a way that suggests that these particular characters truly believe they exist in four completely different movies. Penny makes for an alluring Electra to Harry’s Agamemnon; Harry is diving headlong into romantic-comedy that’s veered into disaster; Marianne sashaying her way through a satire on modern celebrity isolation while her current beau Paul finds himself in a Patricia Highsmith potboiler. What A Bigger Splash lacks in a clear center and moral thesis it makes up for with a concentration on exploring the nuances of behavior carried solely by emotion as opposed to a plot that follows conventional logic.
While the film’s transitions from mood to mood, tone to tone and beat to beat is clumsy even by the standards of the stylistic movement it applies liberally, it’s clear that Guadagnino is only ever steering the story in the only direction it is ever willing or even should go. Out of sight and out of mind, for these four people, and the film itself, the world only exists as far as they and we can feel it. Guadagnino, like a classier Harmony Korine, never judges these characters for their natures that when the line “Everyone’s obscene — that’s the whole point” is howled it’s simply a matter of fact.
The difference between love or lust is often surmised by some as the difference between an ocean and a pool. A Bigger Splash is about showing that regardless of depth, you stand equal chance of drowning in either.