What do we owe the world? Should we focus on our own problems and ignore the macro problems staring us in the face, like global warming and refugees? The four characters at the center of Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash all wrestle with these two questions, even if it is underneath the surface.
Rockstar Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), and her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are hiding out on the Italian island of Pantelleria while Marianne recovers from vocal chord surgery. They are unexpectedly joined by Harry (Ralph Fiennes), an old friend and lover of Marianne’s, and his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Much of the film involves various combinations of these four characters discussing their perspectives on love and life while on this remote island, staying in a very nice villa with an opulent pool overlooking the ocean.
The foursome splinter off and reconvene, allowing the film to capture as many angles of these characters as possible. We understand their motivations, their points of view, and their goals in being on the island. And occasionally, the film decides to intrude on this insular and private world, where the melodramatic concerns around self-image, youth, and legacy are exposed as being important. There is a refugee crisis, introduced as background noise of a radio news program. It intrudes on a scene where Marianne and Harry are tasting homemade ricotta cheese at the house of a family who lives on the island. The radio creates a layer of noise in the scene, making it periodically difficult to understand the dialogue. The “real” issues try to push aside the seemingly petty concerns we have about our own privileged lives, but often barely register as more than a nuisance.
Eventually the situation in the villa reaches a boiling point, forcing all of the characters to reassess what they consider important in their lives. It’s still easier to focus on their personal drama, a choice that seems validated by other characters in the film, often treating Marianne with deference, since she’s famous, or just paying more attention to others in her company regardless if it is warranted.
But what really makes A Bigger Splash work is the performances. Tilda Swinton shines as a mix of David Bowie and Joan Jett in the glimpses we get of her onstage. However, her ability to convey complex emotions through glances, body language, and minimal vocalization (her character isn’t supposed to talk because of the surgery) is extremely impressive. Her performance grounds the film, as her relaxing escape devolves into stress and emotional anxiety. At the other pole is Ralph Fiennes. Harry is manic, one of those people who seem like they have done so many drugs that they are always high. He is constantly talking, running around, stripping naked, and diving into the pool. His performance provides much of the film’s comedic tone, while this attitude may hide a deeper agenda.
Dakota Johnson also shines as Harry’s presumed daughter. She openly flaunts her youth and sexuality, particularly in front of Marianne and Paul. She is a knowing tease, typical of a character exploring the power of their sexuality on those around her. She never hides behind innocence directly, rather it is obliquely revealed through her bluster. Johnson takes a character who could easily be tritely portrayed and gives it shape and depth.
A Bigger Splash is a very funny film with a darker core. It’s sort of a cousin to the kind of films that Woody Allen is known for, but tellingly tends to undercut the kind of observations characters in a Woody film would make. Complex and smart without trying to seem too clever, A Bigger Splash is a rewarding cinematic experience.
A Bigger Splash opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.