Celebrities must cherish their privacy, something the majority of us take for granted. The film opens in a cutaway shot, a singer greets a roaring crowd, thousands of eyes on her, switch to the same singer in a quiet romantic getaway in a scenic paradise. A Bigger Splash is a sexy and enigmatic film which harkens back to the exotic and sensually rapturous La Dolce Vita, another perennial statement on the woes of celebrityhood. Celebrities are people too, and A Bigger Splash is quick to remind us that with Tilda Swinton’s Marianne Lane, the center of an emotional tug-of-war between her younger, hunky photographer boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) and old flame Harry (Ralph Fiennes). Whether it’s old wounds being reopened or past lives relived, director Luca Guadagnino seems methodical in his storytelling, allowing us to observe the unvented passions of his characters play out.
The four primary talents in A Bigger Splash bring something so unique to their roles that the film easily could have been about any of them alone. Marianne and her boyfriend Paul inhabit a quiet, intensely intimate vacation in seclusion. Breaking their self-contained paradise is the vibrant, wildly eccentric Harry, whose introduction to the film disrupts a peaceful moment of silence between the two. Accompanying him is his wide-eyed, guileless daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who most of the time seems to inhabit her own little world. Guadagnino allows a little animosity to flame between Paul and Harry, subtly indicating a history between the two, while at the same time foreshadowing something that will come of it.
Tilda Swinton, whose Marianne is near mute the entire film, has the most challenging performance of expounding a history between her old flame through physical expression and soft whispers alone. The most powerful moments involving her are when Harry corners her both emotionally and physically, you can see her eyes exploring him with a reignited passion, subtly quelled by her loyalty to Paul. Ralph Fiennes’ two-faced performance oozes the type of personality infectious at parties and get-togethers, but offensively over-bearing in every other occasion. However, Fiennes shows a lovelorn weakness in his character that makes his performance compelling, adding layers to his hubris and protruding ego. Counteracting his personality is Matthias Schoenaerts as Paul. I’ve reviewed another film of his this year, and while he is far more restrained in A Bigger Splash, he gives another (yet completely dissimilar) portrait of a man haunted by lust and past grievances.
Dakota Johnson is the film’s dark horse and, contrast to the meek, sexually confused Anastasia Steele, she seems to be in complete control of her sexual identity here. Rare moments allow airs of insecurity to arise from her, more interesting is how in a blink she can bring the film’s plot from a simmer to a boil. By the film’s end you’ll probably feel as if you know her less.
Guadagnino has a real flare for style; his cathartic filmmaking seems to fluctuate between complimenting the story’s nuances and emphasizing tone. A point-of-view shot of Paul is shown, through tinted sunglasses he stares at Harry with a literal shade of mistrust and annoyance. Another, more elaborately framed sequence focuses on three characters. In a furious triangle of jealousy, attraction and extroversion we see the singer’s boyfriend carefully eye the young daughter as the assertive singer watches. Note while watching how much is shown in this scene (conflict, characterization, etc.) without dialogue or obvious visual cues—the mark of a great visual storyteller. Guadagnino doesn’t have much of a signature style, but here it’s lucid, memorable and effective.
Critics have lamented how the third act of the film disappointed them, a sentiment I too have—with a few reservations. Without spoiling the precious details, it feels the plot devolves into a Patricia Highsmith novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a complete turn from a plot that relished in its freedom and spontaneity. The first two-thirds of the film were by far more exciting; psychology, motivation and development of the characters felt less constricted, the outcome less assured. The last third of the film was a narrative stranglehold of whodunit suspense, one-dimensional paranoia and mechanical, by-the-books narrative procedure. That being said, there’s one sequence in the film’s final moments, taking place in an airport, that really lingers. A Bigger Splash probably should have stuck to its guns around this point, but Luca Guadagnino’s stylish directing gave even the most forgettable moments a sensuous, gratifying appeal.