Swinton and Guadagnino Make Waves Once Again

A Bigger Splash
(Italy/France, 124 min.)
Dir. Luca Guadagnino, Writ. David Kajganich
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson
Matthias Schoenaerts and Tilda Swinton star in A Bigger Splash.
Courtesy of Elevation Pictures.

Tilda Swinton and Luca Guadagnino make waves once again. The actor/director team of 2010’s scrumptious I am Love returns with the sizzling drama A Bigger Splash. The film once again brings audiences to the sweltering sexiness of Italy as Swinton stars as rocker Marianne Lane, who recuperates on scenic Pantelleria Island following vocal cord surgery. Swinton is a near-silent marvel here and she’s matched by a strong trio of actors as Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Dakota Johnson all craft deliciously complex characters within this dark and atmospheric slice of Italian sexytime. Fun, bubbly, and artfully debauched, A Bigger Splash is one of the year’s better leaps for alternative indie fare.

Guadagnino unfolds the getaway as vacations with friends often develop in real life. There’s a period of bliss and relaxation that’s interrupted by fits of restlessness. Guests then overstay their welcome and the holiday turns sour. Admittedly, the turn here is much darker than most European getaways (hopefully) are.

The first act is long lay-in of sun-soaking and pleasure seeking. Marianne, at her late mother’s villa with her partner Paul (Schoenaerts), welcomes a guest: it’s her producer, friend, and former flame Harry (Fiennes). All’s well, expect—surprise!—for the 22-year-old daughter named Penelope (Johnson) he brings along with his gear. A younger traveller usually isn’t a problem, but Harry and Penny have an ickily incestuous relationship. He ogles her too much and he hugs her too intimately, but his affection for his daughter, of whose existence he learned only recently, adds to the discomfort that Marianne hides behind her aviator shades.

Cue Penny, especially saucy, and her allure of youth and naïveté. Making eyes at Paul and drawing leering peeps from her daddy, Penny draws every ray of the sun to her body. Johnson again assumes a sexually charged role after Fifty Shades of Grey, but she’s infinitely better here as Penny flaunts her body in skimpy, revealing clothes and uses every tool at her disposal to accessorise her sex appeal. Everything is a tease and a come-on in her act, and Johnson’s flirtatious charade nearly steals A Bigger Splash from her more seasoned co-stars.

Fiennes is also very good in his over-the-top performance as Harry. This performance is one that could easily blow the film, since Harry is a loud, incessantly annoying whore for attention. He just doesn’t shut up the whole movie, but Fiennes’ zaniness has the right blend of smugness, arrogance, and ignorance to balance his character. Everyone knows some guy like Harry who needs to be the centre of attention with his stories, his energy, and his taste in music, not to mention his slimy sense of entitlement over women, be it his daughter or his ex-lover, who rebuffs him more than once during the getaway.

Laying poolside is Paul, whom Schoenaerts plays with brooding charm. Like Johnson, he’s an actor finding a fit for highly sexualised performances (re: Rust and Bone) or for playing the object of desire (re: Far from the Madding Crowd). His part isn’t nearly as showy as those of the other three are, but he’s a necessary anchor amongst the escalating crazy of the quartet, which proves especially effective in the film’s dark final act.

Unsurprisingly, though, A Bigger Splash is tidal wave for Tilda. Swinton once said that silent acting was the peak of cinema (talking, I believe, about The Artist) and she displays the full range of character that a great performer can convey with the subtlety of her face. Miming gestures, rolling her eyes, or speaking raspy whips as Marianne strains to control her complicated relationship to Harry, A Bigger Splash is one of few films to use Swinton’s uniquely enigmatic screen presence to its full effect. When Marianne screams in A Bigger Splash, it’s devastating, but when she restrains herself and wails in self-possessed silence, it’s even better.

A Bigger Splash sweats with palpable sexual heat as the quartet lazes, dines, tans, and bickers in the golden Italian sun. Guadagnino teases out the humid atmosphere of the island as slow zooms show the vacationers in various fits of leisure. As he does in I am Love, Guadagnino harnesses the pleasures of the senses to immerse the viewer within intoxicating world of this drama.

Food plays an especially significant role in A Bigger Splash and while nothing compares to the oh-so-sexy scene of Tilda Swinton eating a prawn in I am Love, A Bigger Splash lets one taste the pleasures of Italy by accentuating the tactility of fine Italian fare and the juiciness of its buxom fruits that drip through the frame. The all-seeing camera, which offers ravishing lensing by I am Love alum Yorick Le Saux, captures the simmering sexual tension that ripples like the pool at Marianne’s villa. Every come-hither glance and carry hints of anger, regret, desire, and longing, while every sightline hidden behind sunglasses says even more. The simmering tension mounts until it explodes in the film’s unexpected and violent finale, which the strength of the cast, particularly Swinton, aids through the tonal shift from sunny days to tempestuous tragedy. The film is in many ways the movie that Angelina Jolie Pitt’s By the Sea aspires to be but falls short of becoming with its arty getaway of relaxation, restlessness, and relationships gone awry. It intoxicates with its romantic getaway only to crash the idyllic ease upon the island’s rocky shoals.

A Bigger Splash is now playing in Toronto at the Varsity.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on June 3.