A BIGGER SPLASH Review

A Bigger Splash is one of those sun-soaked independent dramas from a foreign director working with well-known Hollywood actors who wish to explore their creative desires outside the realm of the studio system. It is a perfect summation of indie values and studio aspirations as filmmaker Luca Guadagnino seemingly creates something a little more strange and a little more riskier than he could ever get away with were he operating within the system that values the dollar over artistic integrity, but doesn't mind using a few of its assets. Still, the film isn't strange or interesting enough to warrant the time and resources these people have clearly invested. Instead, A Bigger Splash is a melodrama that resorts to the formula of putting four people in a house and letting their emotions as well as the inherent human nature of the situation take hold. Given there are some interesting dynamics between the four individuals and that they are each portrayed by talented, credible actors there will be plenty of material to use to mount a good defense of the film, but just because Ralph Fiennes is clearly having the time of his life with this role doesn't mean we're having the time of our life watching his film, or even a slightly compelling time-which would have been fine enough. Rather, A Bigger Splash wades through two decades of emotions and mounting tensions for an hour and a half before becoming something even worse than the meandering character study that it is concealed as in-depth psychoanalysis which is that of being predictable. It is clear from the moment Belgium actor Matthias Schoenaerts sets his eyes on Fiennes' Harry Hawkes that there is an unresolved sense of anxiety between the two lending to an overarching sense of dread despite Harry's general exuberant attitude and the gorgeous backdrop that is the island of Pantelleria. In short, A Bigger Splash seemingly yearns to be more than it is and in presenting this facade of a laid-back European beach film where there's nothing to do but create your own drama Guadagnino's movie ultimately wants to be of huge emotional resonance, but that the characters bring as much upon themselves because they have nothing better to do creates little sympathy from viewers not of such privilege therefore leaving little care as to the outcome.

Harry (Ralph Fiennes) meets his former lover Marianne (Tilda Swinton) on an exotic escape with unclear intentions.
Tilda Swinton serves as the centerpiece for this human art exhibit as everyone and everything else in this world seems to serve no other purpose than to construct the next steps of her characters life. As Marianne Lane, Swinton is a David Bowie-like rock star who has seemingly long since passed her prime. She's recently underwent surgery on her throat, can barely speak, and has resigned herself to an area on the island where she and her boyfriend, Paul (Schoenaerts), couldn't be found if they wanted to. Of course, if there was one person who could track them down it would be Mr. Hawkes and he does indeed do as much. Bringing along his twenty-two year old daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), it becomes evident that there is a history between Hawkes and Lane that makes Paul a little uneasy despite the two clearly having an established friendship as well. From here the film becomes one of those movies where the intrinsic human inclinations well all share begin to take over and are tested. There is a large shadow of mystery that hangs over the proceedings as we're only allowed brief glimpses into the pasts of certain characters. The feelings of quiet jealousy continue to get louder as the film progresses and the tamed passion between Hawkes and Lane begins to reignite. Penelope keeps her seductive eyes on a number of takers while Paul attempts to retain the normality of his relationship with Marianne that existed without issue prior to Hawkes' arrival. With hints of addiction, suicide, and depression all leaking into certain character arcs it becomes all the more clear these four individuals are not so much victims of their own circumstance, but rather products of their own choices. The film, which takes its name from David Hockney's 1967 painting, and is a re-make of the Jacques Deray 1969 film, La Piscine, finds its downfall in our inability to care for these self-centered narcissists; though it does have a few redeeming qualities. Still, it is the story that remains the heart and soul of a movie and with A Bigger Splash we only have the famous rock star, the filmmaker, the producer, his spoiled daughter and their whirlwind of emotions to elicit a narrative from-ultimately making this a narrative we care little to invest in.

Of the redeeming qualities, the most obvious is that of the performance of Fiennes. If one is familiar with the actor at all it is without surprise that the guy has range, but with his performance here Fiennes redefines himself once again. There have been hints of the actor's comedic abilities in performances before, most recently in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, but whereas Fiennes played M. Gustave with a strict and dry demeanor his Harry Hawkes operates on the other end of the spectrum: a personality so big it can't be contained. Hawkes is a man who talks in hyperbole and assumes he's the life of the party no matter where in the world he happens to be-even when on an island in the Strait of Sicily. Within the first half hour of the film we are delivered a scene featuring Fiennes dancing and gyrating to the sounds of The Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue," and within the first hour we've seen his bare ass a handful of times as he ever so haphazardly jumps into the pool. While the film is largely centered around the competing passions of these four people it is Fiennes' performance that energizes the movie and makes it feel more like a compelling character study than a drawn out sorrow session. It is also because of Fiennes' loose and dynamic performance that the ultimate destination of his character and the looming tone of dread that haunts the film are all the more effective. Essentially, his light adds to the darkness that permeates underneath. Like a stand-up comedian whose comedy comes from being able to observe the perverted or obscene in seemingly innocent situations, Fiennes' Hawkes is a man who creates something of a facade as a tool for misdirection thus allowing his selfish desires to override anything and everything that might come to be in his way-even Marianne's actual happiness. This is where the strength of A Bigger Splash lies in that it is able to pick up on these deep-seated flaws in the human condition and expose them ever so delicately. The repeated metaphor of a snake making its way into Marianne and Paul's island property is one that strikes the right chord given Guadagnino chooses to play this at just the right moments, but these shades of dark for light aren't enough to add real weight to the two hour reel of grief the film feels like.

Penelope (Dakota Johnson) becomes increasingly interested in Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) over the course of her vacation.
One can draw out meaning, one can come to understand what might be insightful about a piece, but if these things are not conveyed in an entertaining or, more importantly, enthralling way then it can't help but to feel as if the film isn't fulfilling its complete job description. The remainder of the performances are all well and good, especially Johnson who gets the most to do here. Though it naturally seems difficult to find the actress appealing she continues to prove to be just that with each new role (seeing How to be Single just prior to this no doubt helped). As what may or may not be Hawkes' long-lost daughter, Penelope is a seductress of the modern age. Wrapped up in her headphones and iPad she uses these tools to appear distracted while allowing their isolation to give her the edge when it comes to sideways glances. Most of these naturally come to be aimed at Schoenaerts' Paul as he is clearly in a fragile state given the indicators we are fed throughout the film. With what is more or less a speechless part, Swinton is still able to pull off the necessary sympathy viewers are supposed to feel for this rock star in that we become wrapped up in her emotions even though she has nothing else to worry about but what she chooses to do with those emotions. That they dictate her happiness should feel second rate to the fact she leads a privileged life, but Swinton is an actress of such grace and sophistication that one can't help but to respect her presence and that essence comes through fully in her performance as this torn and conflicted woman who seems to have an advantage when it comes to everything in life but the game Harry is playing with her. Of course, any viewer who pays attention to the current film landscape will know that a movie featuring the likes of four talented actors such as we have here is going to be interesting to some extent and undoubtedly well-performed, but good performances and the beautiful, sun-drenched cinematography are not enough to push this otherwise overly melodramatic story into compelling territory. A Bigger Splash is clearly meant to elicit an emotional response, but rather this sometimes intriguing, but mostly meandering piece renders the viewer detached.