A sizzling relationship drama of lingering sensuality and unspoken tension, Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash fizzles beneath the weight of an incongruous plot.
Voyage To Italyby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After a hiatus of six years since his magnificent and grandiose I Am Love (albeit with a few shorts and the documentary Bertolucci On Bertolucci), Luca Guadagnino finally returns to fiction filmmaking with A Bigger Splash. Taking place on the remote Italian island of Pantelleria, Guadagnino keeps his Italian setting (and his lead actress Tilda Swinton), but opens it up with English dialogue and a marquee-dazzling cast of Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson. An Italian remake of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (which quite frankly didn’t really need one), Guadagnino invites us away on holiday with him – amidst the mud-rich bays, coastal roads and lemon groves of a distant idyll, creating a sun-dappled paradise just waiting to be lost.
Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is a stadium-filling rock goddess on holiday on a remote Italian island with her boyfriend and one-time film director Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Marianne, recovering from an operation on her vocal cords, is unable to speak, but their peace and quiet is well and truly spoiled when live-wire and old-flame Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives with his apathetic daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). For Harry, it seems the spark hasn’t yet been extinguished, and as he makes a bid to reignite Marianne’s interest, the foursome’s relative harmony dissolves, as secrets are exposed and old wounds are salted. And as their holiday cottage descends into a seething pressure cooker of male oneupmanship, violent impulses surface from which there’s no way back.
Although it’s named after David Hockney’s painting of a Californian poolside haven, it’s hard not to read the title as a gauntlet laid down to Deray’s film, upping the ante in all directions. But if La Piscine was shocking in the sixties with its lingering images of a near-naked Romy Schneider and Alain Delon sunning themselves, Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash alludes to it with an opening sequence of naked bliss as Marianne and Paul soak up the sunshine like lizards on a rock. And yet, Guadagnino’s film is no more shocking than its predecessor – if anything, given the day and age, it’s more coy. And it’s a reserve that carries over into the screenplay, with Tilda Swinton reduced to a mute, which – while it makes for an engaging coup de théâtre – leaves the film bereft of one of its greatest charms – much like the vacuum ending of I Am Love.
But there’s always Ralph Fiennes, who seems to relish his role as the motormouth cad Harry with such gusto it’s almost impossible not to be carried along with him – no matter whether we, much like the characters around him, find him by turn irritating, charming, desperately honest or conniving. But while Swinton and Fiennes carry off their roles with a certain spark, there’s no such possibility for Matthias Schoenarts’ and Dakota Johnson’s characters, as they are left scraping around in awkward roles of pining loyalty, bristling jealousy and vulgar laziness. The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux (who also shot Clouds Of Sils Maria and Only Lovers Left Alive) is gorgeous, particularly in one dazzling moment when an extravagantly made-up Swinton is caught looking directly into camera, but Guadagnino’s sizzling relationship drama quickly turns sour when horseplay eventually turns to foul-play.
The costumes, locations and framing often recall the grandmasters of Italian cinema, in particular Antonioni’s The Red Desert or L’Avventura with its “modernist” shots of scaffolding and its geometric interplay of architecture and female forms. But Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash pales unfortunately by comparison. It angles towards a dialogue on communication, with Harry’s verbosity in stark contrast to Marianne’s muteness, while Penelope hides her ability to speak Italian behind a steely silence, sadistically watching those around her flounder. She’s the fly in the ointment in this drama, much like the refusenik in Nathalie Sarraute’s novel Le Silence. Yet neither is her character powerful, erotically charged or central enough for A Bigger Splash to make something of it. Instead, Guadagnino’s film ultimately is a movie about male competition, much like Athina Rachel Tsangari’s award-winning Chevalier. But with a plot that makes an ungainly dive into B-movie murder territory, A Bigger Splash ends up disappointingly like more of a damp squib.
A Bigger Splash is released on 12th February 2016 in the UK