I’ve been waiting to see A Bigger Splash for quite some time now – I heard news of its production long before it came out, because Tilda Swinton is one of my absolute favourite actors. It wouldn’t be wrong to suggest that I keep myself updated on what she has in the pipeline. I had hopes that this film would be somewhat comparable to ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ and the trailer reinforced this notion. It was sumptuous, moody, stylish and heavily character driven. Both films are set in a paradisal location – heated and sensual, with a plot that revolves around the interactions of a small set of protagonists. In some ways A Bigger Splash was a similar affair to Only Lovers, but it does deserve to be recognised in its own right, because it is made up of some truly unique components. I understand it is ridiculous of me to use the terms ‘truly unique’ to describe a remake (‘La Piscine’, 1969), but just humour me for a moment.
The story is set in the sun-drenched Italian island of Pantelleria, seemingly the perfect idyllic getaway for Marianne (Swinton) and Paul (Schoenaerts). It is revealed through a series of snappy flashbacks Marianne has had a long and bountiful career as an androgynous and Bowie-esque singer. Paul, her partner of six years is a documentary filmmaker ad recovering alcoholic. The pair have escaped for the summer, and in the opening scenes of the film Luca Guadagnino does a fantastic job of painting a paradise. The pair seem so in love and so at peace, and for a while you can escape with them. This warm, cozy blanket of holiday romance is set alight by the entrance of Harry Hawkes (Fiennes) an old friend of the couple, and Marianne’s ex-lover. He arrives with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), a stunning girl in the prime of youth who met Harry for the first time earlier this year, neither certain of whether she is truly her father. It quickly becomes clear that he brought her along as a ploy to tempt Paul away from Marianne as Harry does his best to win her back. The film plays out with little more by way of plot, choosing to allow the cast to freely roam their stage and bring life to their own characters. I was ready to see Swinton bare her acting chops but nothing could prepare me for the performance given by Fiennes, he was an absolute powerhouse. Blindly passionate and unforgivingly naive, with the energy of 50 bouncy toddlers. The actions of Harry were childish and selfish for the majority of the film and yet there is a strange charm about him. My hat must go off to Fiennes for creating such a likeable character out of someone so hideous on paper. I must also doff my cap to Swinton (and I’ll do my best to be unbiased here despite my Swinton-superfan status) because my love for Harry grew undeniably in sequence with Mariennes, as a viewer, you almost see him through her eyes, and it’s her understanding of him, and her forgiving view of him, that makes him all the more forgivable.
At first glance it seems ridiculous that the couple so in love and at peace at the start of the film could have any sort of wedge driven between them by the ridiculous fireball of energy that has just encroached on their holiday. But Marienne and Harry have a strange and captivating chemistry that is in my opinion thoroughly enhanced by Marienne’s silence. I mentioned previously that she’s this rock and roll superstar, but I didn’t mention that as a result of this she’s currently recovering from throat surgery – which has her silent in almost every scene and unable to let out more than a scratchy whisper. This seemingly very restrictive idea (which is rumoured to have come from Swinton herself) is genius for two reasons. 1. It suggests that the Marienne we are seeing is not the whole of this woman, and that perhaps the peaceful life she has chosen with Paul can not hold a candle to the life inside her. And 2. it creates such an interesting dynamic between Marienne – reserved, still, quiet and Harry – bombastic and loud and relentlessly energetic. The stark differences between them somehow amplify their similarities and the flashbacks confirm that Marienne once matched this spirit (and wore a glittering skin-tight jumpsuit while doing so). Somehow, this act of silence in a largely dialogue driven film is a key and game-changing component.
Aside from the cast, one of the main attractions of this film for me as a viewer, was the aesthetic. You can see even in the trailer that the attention to detail in the art direction here is monumental. Everything has been designed and the film just looks like art. It’s not the subtle type of art that you can look deeply into for hours either, it’s brash and bold – almost unapologetically so. Its bright colour palette is set off by dark geometric lines and shapes in almost every shot. The sumptuous mise-en-scène of the film pulls you into the fantasy of this paradise – which makes it all the more jarring when the tone of the film begins to darken.
I felt a little let down by the final chapters of the film, which spend a lot of time meandering without much ever really happening. I didn’t mind this (in fact for the most part it was thoroughly enjoyable) but I don’t feel I had enough of a build-up for the ending to go where it did. More than that though, the ending is dark, but the film never really becomes tense or thrilling enough to justify it. Reality has come crashing down on this fantasy world, but it just sort of… happens, and then it’s over, and life goes on. It’s got a good sense of realism, but that seems so out of place in a film so stylised and theatrical throughout.
I still stand by the film, and I think it is definitely worth your time, it’s an enjoyable ride with stunning scenery and you get the opportunity to see some great actors really throwing themselves into unusual and complex characters. Overall I think A Bigger Splash was perhaps not the thriller I had hoped for, but it was still a stylish, mysterious and distinctive drama that had a lot to offer. In all honesty it’s worth the 125 minute running time just to see a cocaine-fuelled Ralph Fiennes in a perpetual state of dancing or being completely (and sometimes full-frontally) naked.
A Bigger Splash is available on DVD and Blu-ray on 27th June 2016.