Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino made critical waves in 2009 with his film I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton, who received a lot of deserved attention for her performance. The cinematography and costume design were also lauded. A Bigger Splash, a remake of the French New Wave film La Piscine, is a similar visual spectacle, except it’s the gorgeous natural environments in which the story takes place that provide the eye candy background for its cast, who spend much of the film unclothed.
Pop star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are vacationing on the Italian island Pantelleria off the coast of Tunisia, as she tries to recuperate from losing her voice. They’re pleasantly lounging around the swimming pool when Marianne’s producer and former lover Harry (Ralph Fiennes) shows up with his grown-up daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) whom he only learned about recently. Harry still pines for Marianne, and he’ll do whatever is necessary to win her away from Paul.
With a solid screenplay by David Kajganich (True Story), A Bigger Splash is the type of character-driven drama that may have worked just as well as a stage play, except that Guadagnino uses the quartet’s environment quite ably, placing them in interesting places as he develops their relationships.
It’s pretty hard to do wrong when you have actors of the caliber of Fiennes and Swinton. Fiennes’ characterization of music producer Harry is absolutely wild and brilliant, as he dances drunkenly to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” or goes on one of his cocaine-induced rambles. We really haven’t seen Fiennes in this type of role before, which just makes it that much more enjoyable, especially when compared to his more serious roles. Swinton is also as good as always even though the nature of her character’s situation makes it so that she barely talks in the film, leaving her to deliver all her emotions in raised whispers.
By comparison, Dakota Johnson’s Penelope is an enigma, because we’re never sure if she’s really Harry’s biological daughter or has just been brought on the trip to act as a distraction for Paul while Harry tries to win back Marianne’s heart. As a critic, it’s easy to pile on Dakota Johnson, because let’s face it—she’s not a very good actress. And yet, oddly enough, she offers as much sex appeal as her mother (Melanie Griffiths) to make the character of Penelope work in the way she was meant to.
Guadagnino is by no means the first Italian filmmaker to transition into making movies for English-speaking audiences, but it’s hard not to be reminded of last year’s Youth, another film from an Italian filmmaker about wealthy celebrities dealing with personal issues while vacationing in a glamorous location, making it hard to feel for any of them.
A Bigger Splash is a far more coherent film, but it’s also quite erratic, because the film changes tone quite dramatically leading into its third act when one of the four turns up dead at the bottom of that swimming pool and all three of the others have motives for committing the murder. Having already seen how things went down, there isn’t that much mystery involved other than which one of them committed the murder.
Other than that quizzical and deeply unsatisfying ending, Guadagnino’s latest thrives on its performances and gorgeous scenery, but will probably be an acquired taste, more for European film enthusiasts than those who enjoy more mainstream fare.