Luca Guadagnino‘s A Bigger Splash (Fox Searchlight, 5.13) is a noirish Mediterranean hothouse thing — a not-especially-sordid sex and betrayal story that builds so slowly and languidly it feels like there’s nothing going on except for the vibe, and honestly? It’s so lulling and flavorful and swoony and sun-baked that you just give in to it. The undercurrent is…well, gently mesmerizing, and that was enough for me. I can’t wait to see it again, or more precisely go there again. I felt like I was savoring a brief vacation. I’m not saying the dramatic ingredients are secondary, but they almost are.
The title comes from a David Hockney painting, and that in itself should tell you where Guadagnino is coming from. A Bigger Splash is about island vibes and coolness and louche attitudes and to some extent the splendor of the druggy days, and particularly the legend of the Rolling Stones.
This is Guadagnino’s second collaboration with Tilda Swinton after I Am Love, the Milan-set family drama that opened seven years ago, and the newbie is…I don’t what it is exactly.
In my mind the island of Pantelleria, which is halfway between Tunisia and the southwest coast of Sicily, isn’t just the setting but a kind of lead character. It colors and tonalizes and blows little mood gusts.
Swinton plays Marianne, a late 40ish rock star (a sort of female David Bowie type) who’s vacationing there with boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a distinctly younger fellow who’s a rock-industry photographer/filmmaker.
The kindling catches when Swinton’s ex-boyfriend, the more age-appropriate Harry (Ralph Fiennes), arrives for an out-of-the-blue visit with his somewhat distant daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), and he starts playing silly little head and mood games that are half-hilarious and almost reminiscent of Ben Kingsley‘s Don Logan in Sexy Beast…if Logan had been more personable and honed his social skills. At the same time Penelope, an icy little player of games, starts eyeballing Paul.
A Bigger Splash takes a while to kick in but it’s eventually about underlying agendas and sexual ploys and finally an accidental (certainly half-accidental) homicide, but I was so taken by the laid-back atmosphere, and the sense of almost tasting the wine and smelling the afternoon wind and the warm ricotta cheese from my seat…it’s really something to sink into.
You feel so nicely brought along by Yorick Le Saux‘s sun-speckled afternoon cinematography and Walter Fasano‘s disciplined cutting, and by the nostalgic Stones vibe (there’s a lip-synch dance sequence that made me fall in love all over again with “Emotional Rescue”) and especially by Fiennes’ giddy-ass, run-at-the-mouth, rock-and-roll madman performance that I was going “wow, I almost don’t even care what may or may not happen in this thing.”
Well, I did as far as the plot unfolded. When the heavy-ass, third-act complications arrived I was…well, not uninterested. They’re definitely intriguing as far as they go, especially when the law steps in and starts asking questions. But I just liked being there.
The really interesting part involves Marianne’s inability to speak, having recently undergone an operation on her vocal chords. The most she can manage (and only toward the end) is a raspy whisper. But Swinton sure knows how to work the handicap. Her performance is the second most memorable after Fiennes’ motormouth.
A Bigger Splash is a hell of a lot richer and more engaging than La Piscine, the 1969 French film that it’s based upon. I watched this vaguely kinky Alain Delon-Romy Schneider film last August and found it cold and rather off-putting by the end. But A Bigger Splash is a turn-on.
Yes, things have to happen in a murder tale but this is one of the least plot-driven films I’ve ever settled in with. It delivers the kind of atmosphere that you’d like to go on vacation with. (Or get high with.) It made me feel like I’d almost been there.
Excerpt from “The Water Is Cold,” an 8.7.15 HE piece:
“Last night I finally watched La Piscine start to finish. Man! The plot and the tone are as malevolent as this kind of thing gets. It’s a Mediterranean sun-baked noir with nary a drop of heart or compassion. And in at least one respect it’s fairly deranged. Who dumps Romy Schneider at a time when she was one of most beautiful women in the world? She was 30 when La Piscine was made in September 1968 and dead 13 and 2/3 years later, at age 43.
Kicker: “Anyway, I sensed or suspected right away how audiences will respond A Bigger Splash if it follows the plot of La Piscine. ‘Audience-friendly’ is not a term that I’d use.”
From a British critic who caught it in Venice: “As with I Am Love, Guadagnino has put together something utterly distinctive here, a cocktail of intense emotions, transcendent surroundings and unexpected detours. A real pleasure.”