At one point in Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash, record producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes) recounts a wild tale in which he used banging trash can lids as percussion in the Rolling Stones' "Moon is Up", because Keith Richards wanted no drums. It might be a true story, it might be Harry just telling one of his big, bold, brash tall tales, but he tells it with such gusto that it doesn't really matter. That's Harry in a nutshell; larger than life, exuberant, the kind of outsized personality that you can't take your eyes away from.
That's A Bigger Splash in a nutshell; a big soapy exploration of sexual desire, romantic longing, and lies set against an idyllic, sun-kissed Italian paradise. Guadagnino, who made you want to jump through the screen and devour every frame of his gorgeous I Am Love, overloads the senses once again, whether it's through the buzz of a classic rock jam, the shimmering blue ocean, or his breath-taking cast. A loose remake of Jacques Deray's 1969 film, La Piscine, the story is set entirely on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria where famous rocker Marianne (Tilda Swinton) has gone to recuperate after some kind of surgery on her vocal chords. Flashbacks fill us in on her Bowie-esque persona and litany of personal demons, but in the present she's content in domesticated bliss with Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), a documentary filmmaker who has taken it upon himself to care for her. But their isolated happiness is disrupted by the arrival of the boorish Harry, one of Marianne's old flames, and his apparent daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who he's only just met. Harry, who was the one responsible for Marianne and Paul getting together, comes crashing back into their lives like a gale force wind, rattling the shutters and stirring up old emotions.
A Bigger Splash is the kind of film where every single word matters. There are so many complicated entanglements and ulterior motives among all of these people that paying attention is crucial. Fortunately, you'll want to hang on to every word because the tension between them is absolutely delicious. Harry obviously is there to stir up trouble; the question is how far does his plan go? He shares a unique past with Marianne, one borne of a rock 'n roll lifestyle, that seeing her in comfortable domestication is somewhat offensive. Paul, who has his own share of past troubles, also has settled into the role of Marianne's lover and caretaker, but is it enough? And then there's Penelope, whose motivations remain a mystery that baffles everybody in different ways.
For all of the terrific character work and strong performances, most notably by Fiennes in his most carefree role ever, subtlety and nuance are not the film's strength. It escalates haphazardly from a sophisticated game of human chess into a run-of-the-mill thriller, and one can't help but wish certain characters had a bit more fleshing out. Schoenaerts is once again called upon to be the model of passive strength, a stark contrast to Fiennes who gets an awesomely-spirited dance sequence set to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue". Don't be surprised if videos of it start popping up everywhere, especially when those "Best Scene of the Year" lists are written up. Swinton, who barely speaks above a whisper throughout, proves she doesn't need to say a word to tell us exactly who Marianne is. In her we see a woman faced with the possible end of her career, her life essentially, and entering back into Harry's unpredictable orbit could be a way to reclaim some of what is lost. And then there's Johnson, who has consistently been the best thing about some pretty terrible movies. She doesn't get nearly enough to work with beyond playing the manipulative sex pot, but she more than makes up for the underwritten role. If she can hold her own opposite this trio she can hold her own with anybody.
There are only so many high stakes games of the heart one can stand, and eventually the film begins to wear out its welcome. In one of her moments of "brilliance", Penelope remarks that old B-sides would have one great song on each side so you had to keep flipping the album. A Bigger Splash is like a hit record with plenty of classics on both sides, but listen to them for too long and even they can start to get old.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5