Film Review: “A Bigger Splash” — Romance, Darkly Comic

A Bigger Splash has a pleasing richness wherein the sensual elements bind the individual characters to each other, and to nature.

A Bigger Splash directed by Luca Guadagnino. At the Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Loews Boston Common 19.

in "A Bigger Splash."

Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes in “A Bigger Splash.”

By Betsy Sherman

Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes play former lovers and creative partners swept up in a battle of wills in A Bigger Splash. The sun-drenched contemporary drama is worlds away from the scene of their last on-screen clinch, when Fiennes was the comme il faut concierge Monsieur Gustave and Swinton the octogenarian dowager whom he affectionately services in The Grand Budapest Hotel. For this one, she’s a rock star and he her libertine record producer who makes a visit, with ulterior motive, to the vacation spot where she’s convalescing with her boyfriend.

In director Luca Guadagnino’s brilliant 2009 I Am Love, also starring Swinton, the sense of taste dictated major plot points. Here too, the director shows his talent for conveying all the senses using just sight and sound. And he gets a quartet of marvelous performances, from the two veteran stars and cast-mates Matthias Schoenaerts (Far from the Madding Crowd) and Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey). This compelling update of the 1969 movie La piscine/The Swimming Pool is tense and often darkly comic.

Marianne (Swinton) and her younger lover Paul (Schoenaerts) have a blissful set-up on an Italian island. She has had vocal cord surgery, and must keep quiet while it heals. Her scheduled tour has been pushed back. In the meantime, the couple lives in a sensuous bubble. Paul takes care of Marianne, which we find out is a role reversal: he’s a recovering alcoholic and had been to rehab after a suicide attempt. At the beach, they get a call from Harry (Fiennes): he surprises them by saying he’ll be arriving at the nearby airport momentarily. The shadow of the plane passing over them turns out to be the first allusion to the older man as a serpent.

The charming, ebullient Harry arrives, as could be expected, with a very young woman. But Penelope (Johnson) is the daughter whom he met only a year earlier (it was news to her, too). Impulsively, Paul invites Harry and Pen to stay (while Marianne can speak in a hoarse whisper, she tells Paul to keep that a secret). Harry immediately gets down to bringing bread and circuses into Marianne and Paul’s life, whether they want them or not. He commandeers the kitchen, bopping to music as he prepares an elaborate seafood dish, and he invites guests over. His one-man show includes copious anecdotes of his experiences in the rock scene, most involving The Rolling Stones (at one point, his always moving mouth is shot in extreme close-up).

It was Harry who first befriended Paul, a filmmaker, after being an interviewee in his music documentary. Then he brokered the match between Marianne and Paul. But now Harry has come to woo Marianne back; he says he wants them to grow old together. He tells Marianne that with Paul, she’s merely hibernating. She gently parries him while affirming she still loves him. But she is not quite at full strength. Harry opens another warfront, one of male competition, initiating races across the pool and verbally jabbing at Paul’s vulnerabilities. Meanwhile, Pen is on hand as tempting fruit. The disruption escalates towards violence.

There’s a mythic quality to the story, but the movie isn’t divorced from the real world. The tragic aspects of Europe’s current migrant crisis and its consequences for points in the northern Mediterranean are acknowledged.

A Bigger Splash has a pleasing richness wherein the sensual elements bind the individual characters to each other, and to nature. The flashback opening, with smoke billowing onto the stadium stage on which Marianne is about to perform, is later rhymed with the island’s volcanic smoke, seen as Paul and Pen walk to the beach (aside from this illustration of Marianne’s fame, the flashbacks are the movie’s weak point). A few 360-degree shots are reminders of the mouth of a volcano. Record albums too are round (no CDs here), and as Pen provocatively points out to Marianne, you can flip them over when you’re bored with the first side.

Fiennes is so damn entertaining that it feels like we’re discovering him anew. Has he ever been as physically free as he is here dancing like Mick Jagger? But of course we’re constantly discovering him anew. He’s been out in the margins many times, from the hustler in Strange Days to the psychopath in Red Dragon, the gangster in In Bruges and the lit-from within innocent in Oscar and Lucinda. Swinton, a well established chameleon, plays one of her less eccentric characters here, and beautifully meets the challenge of using facial expression and gesture, since Marianne rarely even whispers. A highlight of the film is when the two stroll through town shopping, a motormouth and a mute, Chico and Harpo Marx. The actress is given a bit of a goddess treatment by the camera, but Marianne doesn’t act the entitled celebrity; she’s classy, in a slightly goofy way, wearing Elizabeth Taylor-ish dresses that had belonged to her late mother. The thinner than usual Schoenaerts is automatically sympathetic — the unassuming jeep he and Marianne use seems emblematic of their cozy relationship — but he’s a brooder, liable to crack. And while the role of Pen is crystal clear in this quadrangle, as played by the talented Johnson she’s neither a mere device nor a decoration. Pen hangs back and observes, feline-like, and uses her cutting wit strategically. There’s a mystery in there.

The 1969 French film on which this one was based has its good points, but is something of a guilty pleasure, with its chilly ominous tone. A Bigger Splash is a subtler type of boa constrictor, one that wraps around the viewer with a warm grip.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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