Can a lost love bloom years later, or does our own sense of nostalgia blind us to the mistakes that we’ve made, and continue to make? In making A Bigger Splash, director Luca Guadagnino answers those particular questions by employing his own sense of nostalgia as a filmmaker with a fondness for the past and knack for style.
As legendary rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) recovers from vocal chord surgery on the Italian island of Pantelleria with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), they find themselves visited by Marianne’s ex-lover and producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his estranged daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Ever the wild card, Harry has clearly made no lodging plans for himself and Penelope on the island, so Marianne politely (albeit somewhat begrudgingly) invites them to stay with her and Paul so they can all catch up.
What follows is a temptation-filled holiday, as aggravation turns to tension, which in turn leads to conflict. It’s an emotional, sexual ride made all the more painful by the leisurely pace it takes with its story and its characters.
Let me just start by saying that A Bigger Splash could have been a terrible movie; the sort of thing spoofs are made of. The film’s central narrative often has a tendency to come across as pretentious and endlessly melodramatic – something akin to a Lifetime Original Movie. It’s often objectively difficult to sympathize with the plights of any of these characters, as they all seem to live in their own fairy tale worlds. However, the film ultimately finds itself saved by director Luca Guadagnino’s strong sense of style, and the sheer commitment of the film’s lead actors to their roles and the conflict presented by the narrative.
Like I already mentioned, A Bigger Splash is nothing if not stylish. As it’s loosely based upon a 1969 Italian-French film titled La Piscine, the look and feel of the movie seems ripped from an entirely different era of cinema. Luca Guadagnino takes his time with this, employing long, voyeuristic takes that capture the splendor of the Italian island, but also highlight the isolation of these characters as their personalities start to grate on one another.
These techniques typically work well, but Guadagnino still sometimes gets ahead of himself and lets a scene or a shot go on too long. It’s this (somewhat unearned) sense of patience that makes the already slow burn of a film feel a bit overly lengthy at times. That’s seldom a fatal issue though, because A Bigger Splash is simply so beautiful to look at that we as an audience hardly ever mind. It’s a film dripping with allure and sensuality, with most shots illustrating the beauty of the landscape as well as the characters that inhabit it.
As truly wonderful as the film’s direction is, it’s the two lead performances by Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes that really elevate A Bigger Splash into something enjoyable. Swinton looks oddly recognizable as Marianne Lane, and gives a phenomenal turn as a free spirited woman torn between her wild past and her stable present. Rendered mostly mute for the majority of the film, Swinton impeccably conveys her emotions nonverbally and constantly lends the sense that Marianne wants to say more than she truly can.
However, it’s Ralph Fiennes who absolutely steals the show as the simultaneously repugnant and magnetic. Harry Hawkes. He possesses the manic energy of a shark – of a man completely terrified that he’ll die if he slows down or stops moving in any way. There’s a scene in which Harry energetically regales a moderately interested audience about working with The Rolling Stones in years gone by, and one can almost feel the way his character clasps at nostalgia in order to dull the pain of his life’s mistakes. His continued affection for Marianne is plainly obvious from the moment we see him, and Fiennes plays the demented, pseudo-villainous Jay Gatsby wonderfully.
Sadly, Matthias Schoenaerts and Dakota Johnson don’t get quite as much credit for their respective roles as Paul and Penelope. It’s not that the performances they turn in are necessarily bad, it’s just that the movie gives so much to Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes that there’s little left for the others to chew on when all is said and done. That being said, both of the younger performers get a chance to shine towards the end of the film in separate scenes that definitely prove they had every right to be there.
A Bigger Splash is an average story that ultimately finds itself elevated by its own medium. Through a combination of stylish techniques, and some impeccable front and center performances, Luca Guadagnino captures a visually stunning and energetic slice of the good life that honors the traditions of the French New Wave. Movies are a means of visual storytelling, and few films in recent memory have understood that notion better.