3 stars. Rated R, for graphic nudity, strong sexual content, frequent profanity and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang
A sun-dappled Mediterranean island, four attractive people, an uneasy romantic quadrangle linked in all sorts of directions ... the ingredients are ideal for a dreamy, sexually charged romp.
At first blush, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash delivers on that promise. We meet rock superstar Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and documentary filmmaker Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts) as they enjoy a blissfully average day on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily. They make passionate love in the pool of their luxurious vacation home, then — dressed only minimally — head for the warm delights of a beach that routinely attracts many of the island’s other residents.
She’s on an extended sabbatical, recovering from a throat injury that has left her unable to speak in more than a husky whisper. He works on projects as he can, but mostly tends to her every need. The bond is intense; they’re obviously devoted to each other.
Alas, their peaceful solitude is about to be interrupted. Nay, not just interrupted: rent asunder. Scripter David Kajganich (adapting a story by Alain Page) muddies these luxurious waters, and that’s a problem: The further we get into this self-indulgently long film, the less interesting and more tedious it becomes.
Along with just plain odd. After a lengthy set-up that is no more than relationship angst, Guadagnino and Kajganich abruptly switch gears, with a final act that’s procedural crime drama. Which is unexpected, to say the least.
And not really justified by what comes before.
Kajganich’s script is “inspired” by French filmmaker Jacques Deray’s 1969 “New Wave” classic La Piscine. That’s all well and good, but Deray had a much better handle on the undercurrent of illicit intent that fueled third-act events. Guadagnino and Kajganich are much too leisurely, their approach too vague, to justify their unexpected shift in tone.
But that’s getting ahead of things. Marianne and Paul are surprised by the unexpected arrival of her long-ago ex, music producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes). He’s eager to re-connect and show off the young adult daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), whom he only recently discovered that he fathered.
Harry and Paul also are longtime friends, having met several years back, during the making of a documentary about the music biz. But while Marianne is pleased to see Harry, in a way, she’s also not pleased; Paul, in turn, is equally unhappy.
The reason is obvious: Harry is fun-loving guy, but he’s also vulgar, unruly and heedless of boundaries. He’s the kind of self-absorbed jerk who repeatedly tries to get Marianne to talk (or sing!), despite her pantomimed refusals, and who insists that Paul should join them for wine or cocktails, despite the latter’s polite insistence that he isn’t drinking.
In a word, Harry is toxic: bad for anybody within his orbit. Paul and Marianne are well aware of this, from previous experience.
Penelope is equally unpleasant, in a different way: She’s a self-absorbed, haughty little trollop who watches and silently judges everybody else. Her relationship with Harry is oddly, even inappropriately touchy-feelie; we soon wonder if she is, in fact, his daughter. She certainly seems possessive about Harry, and therefore resentful of Marianne, because of her previous relationship with him.
Or perhaps it’s the other way around, and Harry has brought Penelope to tempt Paul, thereby hoping that an annoyed Marianne will return to him.
Any number of French directors could have had deliciously erotic fun with such a set-up, but Guadagnino’s tone isn’t larkish; it’s actually somewhat sinister. We feel sorry for Paul and Marianne, tolerating these two interlopers solely from politeness. Harry’s intentions are obvious — blatant, even — but Marianne seems more than a match for him.
We’re less certain about Paul, whose quiet complacence results from efforts to recover from his own, earlier, personal crisis. He seems ... fragile.
All of this plays out via long, silent glances and increasingly weighted dialog: hardly the stuff of engaging drama. It gets boring. Worse yet, the swooningly sexy opening scenes with Paul and Marianne prove to be an irritating tease; most of the subsequent nudity (with a few telling exceptions) is restricted to Harry, who arrogantly flaunts his dangly bits as a means to annoy the others.
I’ll say this for Fiennes: He certainly isn’t shy.
He’s also a terrific actor, his take on Harry both larger than life, and uncomfortably familiar. We’ve all met — and taken pains to avoid — such selfish, insincere pricks, with their overblown bonhomie. Fiennes is atrociously flamboyant: a bravura depiction of a charismatic but despicable human being. It’s almost impossible to avoid falling under Harry’s spell, until it’s too late.
Swinton is equally fine in a very difficult role, deftly conveying Marianne’s emotional complexity via hand movements, body language and — depending on who’s on the receiving end — either loving or angrily exasperated expressions. On the few occasions that Marianne actually talks, Swinton’s agonized, pain-wracked whispers sound real, as if each word antagonizes genuinely injured vocal cords.
Johnson plays Penelope as a modern-day Lolita, down to the sunglasses that frequently conceal her contemptuously amused gaze. Johnson nails the arrogant behavior of a young woman who has learned precisely how to flex her erotic self, and who couldn’t care less about collateral damage.
The brooding Schoenaerts is a quieter study, and it’s therefore difficult to get a bead on Paul. Brief flashbacks reveal how he and Harry met, but we never learn how they actually became friends; from what we see of Paul, this seems highly unlikely. Guadagnino and Kajganich also inject a homoerotic element to this relationship, but it doesn’t feel the slightest bit real: contrived window-dressing, like much of the casual profanity that spices up a lot of the film’s dialog.
Because this film isn’t a larkish sexual romp, we must take it as representative of “real life” ... and that’s where Guadagnino and Kajganich fail. Swinton and Schoenaerts make Marianne and Paul feel authentic as a couple, but Fiennes and Johnson never become more than narrative artifice: jokers thrown into the deck, solely to screw up the game.
The contemporary setting is up to the minute, with frequent radio or television references to the unfolding refugee crisis soon to make such a mess in Western Europe. This seems random and peculiar, unless it’s pointed commentary on the insultingly trivial “troubles” afflicting our four protagonists, when compared to the much greater catastrophes elsewhere in the world.
Ultimately, these off-camera events play a minor role in the story, but the link is weak and unsatisfying.
Which also describes the film itself: unsatisfying. Angst-y sound and fury, ultimately signifying very little.
And tedious, at 125 minutes.