A Bigger Splash
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Released May 4, 2016
Vacation – or holiday, as it is called in Europe – can mean many things. Even those on the same trip or in the same place may have completely different perspectives on the time they are spending away from the real world. There is a state of mind that comes with being purposely cut off from regular routines that can lead people to do crazy things they would otherwise not do simply because the repercussions are not the same and they are not messing with their normal lives. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is an expression for a reason, and it applies to so many locales.
“A Bigger Splash” finds two of its protagonists, Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), living peacefully in Pantelleria, an Italian island described by those involved with the film as a gateway between Europe and Africa, attached to the former but more similar in culture to the latter. Marianne is a singer who has recently had surgery on her throat. As a result, flashbacks to scenes of her very loud career contrast strongly with her present state of silence. Record producer Paul doesn’t make much more noise, and the two spend their time together relaxing and working, far from the hubbub of metropolises. The arrival of their boisterous friend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and his young daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) means an unwelcome infusion of drama, energy, and excess that disrupts the calm serenity of their lives.
This film, which serves as a remake of sorts of the 1969 film “La Piscine,” is not heavy on plot. Its primary focus is on the relationships between its characters, a complicated dynamic for just four people. Marianne and Harry used to date, and the fact that Harry introduced Paul to his new girlfriend has only increased his jealousy and inability to get over her. His recently discovered daughter certainly catches Paul’s eye, and there are even undertones that the promiscuous Harry is sexually attracted to the daughter he never knew for most of her life. Away from the prying eyes of society, there is no need for judgment, but there is still an enormous amount of awkwardness to be experienced, with foreboding secret feelings ready to bubble over. Even Marianne’s celebrity status merely means respect from those who recognize her rather than constant harassment by paparazzi.
Discussing the fact that this film and his next project are based on existing material, director Luca Guadagnino shares an uncommon sentiment: there is too much emphasis put on the value of originality. There is no issue with reusing stories and characters because there is also no limit to the level of creativity possible. Some defining aspects, like Marianne’s inability to speak, weren’t even in the original conception of the film, yet the process of making it led to an energizing and intriguing way of looking at a character defined by her voice when she can’t speak.
Swinton is an actress known for challenging and bizarre roles ranging from “We Need to Talk About Kevin” to “Snowpiercer,” and here she turns in what may well be her most normative performance yet. She does a masterful job with pointed looks and deeply emotive mannerisms of conveying all that Marianne wants to say but either cannot – or chooses not to – say. Schoenarts, who recently appeared in “The Danish Girl,” keeps his native accent and, just as much as Swinton, lets unspoken long glances seem volumes. Contrasting them deeply is the usually mellow and villainous Fiennes, who speaks more than everyone else in the film combined, incessantly going on about his many exploits and conquests to an uninterested audience. Guadagnino reveals that Fiennes was cast because of his talkative turn in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a role in which Fiennes’ character lets his ego motivate him to a standard of professionalism rather than just boast. Johnson follows her more silent costars in saying less, and her limited verbal interactions are all the more fascinating and poignant because their inconsistencies indicate just how much of an enigma she really is, seemingly so mature one moment and childlike the next.
This film has a certain dazzling look and feel that takes the utmost advantage of its destination setting. The actors describe how the physical beauty of the place was complemented by strong winds and an air that doesn’t come through on screen but which added immensely to the experience of making the film. Its tone is initially casual and in no rush to get anywhere, and it experiences some strange shifts throughout that make it immensely intriguing if not completely satisfying.