Title: A Bigger Splash
Country: Italy, France
Language: English, Italy
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
In the vein of Jacques Deray’s unstimulating LA PISCINE (1969) and François Ozon’s tantalizingly cagey SWIMMING POOL (2003), Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s much anticipated follow-up of his family embroilment haute-coutrue drama, I AM LOVE (2009), A BIGGER SPLASH (the name hints a more adept reference of British artist David Hockney’s pop art painting), debuted in last year’s Venice, it centers on a close-knitted quartet’s moral tug-of-war which sets its scenic background in the remote Italian island, Pantelleria, and swimming pool, again just like in I AM LOVE, functions as the metaphor for imminent man-made danger (Guadagnino cannot swim in real life).
Marianne Lane (Swinton), a famed British rock star, enjoys her recuperation from a recent throat operation in Pantelleria with her boyfriend Paul De Smelt, a Belgian documentary filmmaker (Schoenaerts, finally returns to a role which he can act with his own nationality), but the unplanned arrival of Marianne’s ex-boyfriend, the UK music producer Harry Hawkes (Fiennes) and his American daughter Penelope Lanier (Johnson), interrupts the lovey-dovey’s intimate holiday. Marianne, who is not supposed to talk for at least two weeks, kindly invites Harry and Penelope to stay with them, and the ensuing days, the initial harmonious equilibrium will little by little be encroached by an irritable tension, since Harry has his own agenda for his visit – to win back his muse Marianne.
This is a Ralph Fiennes whom audience have never seen before, his Harry, is a hyperactive, incessantly garrulous sport, as if he is perpetually under the influence (and maybe he is), runs polarized from extremely buddy-buddy to presumptuously infuriating, that is Harry, a force of no halfway compromise, his intoxicating moves under the throbbing rhythm of The Rolling Stones’ EMOTIONAL RESCUE challenge another inexplicably addictive dance routines which Oscar Isaac stuns in EX MACHINA (2015). And how much Harry can one stomach? The film will give its answer.
Besides, there is some serious business to be done (for Harry, I mean), and pieces together from the infrequent flashbacks, audience will be informed that Paul is Harry’s friend at the beginning, it is Harry who introduces him to Marianne, and no wonder Harry holds the grudge about being usurped like that (despite of his own philandering nature), but the point is, Marianne is really happy with Paul (explicitly shown by Paul’s female-satisfying gesture in the chamber), maybe due to her voice-loss, she hasn’t clearly manifested that the only reason she invites Harry to stay is for old time’s sake, and hopes that their friendship remains, but in Harry’s book, her hospitality betrays a promising signal, he is motivated, tests the water from Paul’s reaction and revels in his street-smart gregariousness, until Marianne has to literally spell out her resolution in utterance, which effectively closes the case.
In another pair, Paul and Penelope, the latter is the enigmatic variant in the quartet, who has never revealed her intentions, is she under the command of Harry to seduce Paul, to undermine their relationship, or is she really Harry’s daughter? Since Harry has only known her existence for over a one-year span, there is a soldering sexual tension between her and Harry in the karaoke, is it incest-arousing or a set-up to agitate the bystanders (namely Marianne in this case)? Or what has happened between her and Paul in their lake hike? Guadagnino habitually leaves many a lacuna like these to leaven the atmosphere of mystery and temptation, while the topical immigrant crisis, looms large in the background mostly and for once, precipitates an encounter unexpectedly, until cunningly exploited as a possible justification for the unpleasant death, which happens in the swimming pool and is closed with a polished zooming-out aviation shot, overall, the film’s cinematography never fails to leave the island’s unique topography untapped.
The quartet core together concocts a palpable interplay between each of them, Ralph Fiennes is the MVP simply because he is all over the place and wondrous to behold under a fully liberated context, and at the same time his performance knowingly triggers a tint of abstruseness which belies the nature of every human soul; Swinton, to quote Penelope’s offhand remark, “a very domesticated rock star”, hemmed herself in Marianne’s own verbal barrier and retreats to a less idiosyncratic realization of a woman in desperation to express her emotions through means other than words, she might not be convincing as a Rock-N-Roll superstar, but surely her Marianne is a woman who doesn’t settle for second-rated commodity.
Matthias Schoenaerts, as solid and desirable as one can divine, seems to be typecast as the even-tempered lover with a burly figure serving well as a bodyguard to the woman he loves, the truth is, his Paul is supposedly the most dangerous and unpredictable one among the four, yet, his barbaric spasm only materialises with a lukewarm thrill; meanwhile, Dakota Johnson, on the contrary, pulls off a staggering impression out of her cool-girl veneer, apart from the gratuitous nudity (so is for Mr. Fiennes), her breakdown in the end sparks off more empathy and tells more of her character than we give the credit for.
The ending, with a massively anti-climatic caricature of the a celebrity’s fandom, seems to be an odd choice to close a sturdily built character drama which scars has clearly forever marred those who have survived, and a takeaway advice: don’t ever invite your ex to spend a holiday with you, it has proven to be lethally dangerous.