Progressing like a holiday suntan, from initial golden glamor through a potentially infected burn and finally to a flaky peel, Luca Guadagnino‘s “A Bigger Splash” is an enjoyable slice of sunshine noir, with the emphasis on the sunshine. A reworking of the 1969 Jacques Deray title, “La Piscine,” it owes most of its plot to that film, but other elements come from Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, and still others again from that well-worn European tradition dedicated to exploring the conflicting currents of sexual desire among small groups of louche sophisticates lounging around in fabulous clothes, accessorized with a scowl. What’s most refreshing about “I Am Love” director Guadagnino’s approach here is that there’s none of the sludgy ennui that normally characterizes those rather self-involved dramas: “A Bigger Splash” is less refined and a lot messier, but that also makes it livelier, more eccentric. If it has introspective depths, they’re more to do with the melancholy, but also the consolations of getting older, and the eternal debate about whether to accept that or start to paddle against the tide.
A great deal of that sense of life comes from its cast, whose differing styles, and, in some cases, against-type roles create odd little bursts of energy of their own. Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is a famous rock star, whom we see in flashback as a kind of Bowie-esque (who else?) black-wigged performer in a sequin jumpsuit. However, in an arch twist, she is recuperating after a throat operation and so spends most for the film either furiously gesticulating or speaking in a hoarse whisper. She and her lover of six years, documentary filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) seem sleek and contented as seals during the wordless opening; they have sex in the pool of their holiday villa on the Italian island of Pantelleria, then drive to the lake to slather each other in clay and bake in the sun. But the quiet idyll is disrupted by the arrival of Marianne’s ex-lover, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and the daughter he hadn’t known he had till a year prior, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Record producer Harry (who worked with The Rolling Stones in his day) descends on the couple, whom he had introduced, with the force of a hurricane — indeed, his arrival brings with it an odd hot wind, the kind that makes everyone a little crazy.
The cast are all good value, but if there’s a standout it has to be Fiennes in the kind of role we’ve never really seen from him before — one in he which he busts out extravagant, unembarrassed Dad moves to The Stones’ “Emotional Rescue” in one of contenders for dance sequence of the year. His Harry is an enormous, jovial, shameless individual, at times a shit-stirrer and at times a buffoon — the kind of person who’s fun to be around…for a short time. Fiennes plays him with a kind of manic energy that indicates his voracious appetite for life and sex and food, but also, in less performative moments, has an edge of desperation to it.
Harry and Marianne share a history predicated on a similar rock’n’roll lifestyle, but Marianne and Paul have settled into a sort of domesticity (albeit a much sexier one than that word usually implies). What do you do when the person you always thought you could go back to has moved on — and not just that, but with someone you set them up with as a kind of stopgap? Harry is that exact type of blustery, gregarious character of whom it’s hard to suspect a hidden agenda, which is probably what makes him so good at being a manipulator. That’s a trait he shares with his daughter, a secretive young woman fully aware of her own sexuality, but perhaps not quite as coolly in control of it (or anything) as she play-acts.
The 1969 version of this story starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, and Jane Birkin, so it was hardly less starry than this one. But while the major arc is the same, and certain details lifted wholesale, the story has been updated, and not just by giving Penelope her Beats by Dre headphones or mentioning, with uncomfortable topicality, the current refugee crisis. In fact Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich (“True Story“) have significantly altered the dynamics between all four leads, refreshing the gender politics along the way. So while there’s a fair few sex scenes and a good deal of bare flesh on display, the film never leers, and the one moment of full-frontal female nudity leads to a development that, unlike in the original film, is more powerful for remaining ambiguous.
This is not to say the film really has that much truck with ambiguity and nuance — that would require more control than is really on display here. And sometimes it suffers from it, as with the never-developed suggestion of Harry’s sexual attraction to Paul, or the underwriting of the Penelope character (for which Johnson does partially compensate, as has apparently become her stock in trade). In fact we have very little emotional connection to any of these people (except maybe for an aching longing for 70% of Tilda Swinton’s wardrobe), instead observing the way they interact as you might watch some odd variant of chess played with four participants.
Instead of control and emotional investment, we get exuberance — reflected in Fiennes’ go-for-broke performance, but also in the splashy, uneven, but seldom uninteresting filmmaking. Along with “I Am Love” DP Yorick Le Saux, Guadagnino enjoyably kicks against strict, staid good taste with odd flourishes: crash zooms, sudden Hitchcockian overhead shots, and wildly unsubtle music cues. This all gives the film a slightly off-kilter feel, which may be one of the things that prompted the boos at its press screening this morning (though we’ve given up trying to parse what gets booed here). But its very wonkiness is one of the things that makes “A Bigger Splash” a good time — the sense of a filmmaker, perhaps aware that the story he’s telling is not terribly deep or philosophically provocative, allowing himself to go off the rails every now and then in how he’s telling it.
At one point, with the track playing on a record, Harry delivers an excitable anecdote explaining how he persuaded Keith Richards to use a percussion track on the song “Moon is Up” when Richards wanted no drums — he got Charlie Watts to bash on a trash can instead. In some way that seems a good comparison to “A Bigger Splash” in general: it’s not deep, nor refined, in fact it’s kind of trashy at times. But you can still make a solid, buzzy rock ‘n’ roll album track out of trash, if not quite a hit single. [B]