'A Bigger Splash'
A few years ago, who would have ever guessed that Ralph Fiennes could be considered a brilliant comedic performer? Yet here we are after ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ and Fiennes has delivered his second hilarious performance of the year following his scene-stealing work in the Coen brothers’ ‘Hail, Caesar!’. Not that ‘A Bigger Splash’ should be confused as a comedy.
The film is another melodrama to follow up Luca Guadagnino’s previous Tilda Swinton collaboration ‘I Am Love‘, but this one is bursting with energy surprising for its decidedly middle-aged milieu and often dips into the awkwardly hilarious. It’s a strange little movie that was adapted from an obscure 1969 French film called ‘La Piscine’. Its attacks on the bourgeoisie and tension-filled character drama are distinctly of that time and place in filmmaking. What seemed standard then feels like a welcome change today.
Swinton stars as Marianne Lane, an aging Bowie-esque rock star who’s recovering from recent vocal cord surgery in a gorgeous vacation home in Sicily. In between lounging around in the nude with her younger boy toy (brooding Belgian studmuffin Matthias Schoenaerts doing his thing), Marianne receives word that her former manager/lover is coming to visit. That’s of course Fiennes, who bursts onto the screen with an explosion of anecdotes and flailing limbs in an attempt to steal away the picture. He’s also followed by his recently discovered daughter (Dakota Johnson) in a relationship that seems odd from the get-go and only gets worse. A never-ending party kicks off between the four characters, filled with quiet jabs and unstated secrets that will clearly come to light. Tension hangs over every scene, even when it’s burst with a laugh.
This is one of those movies where viewers are trapped in a claustrophobic location with four old friends waiting for the fireworks to erupt. That might sound a bit stale and static because these films usually are, but restless director Guadagnino refuses to let dullness set in. His location offers blinding light and beautiful landscapes, punctuated by the bright colors splattered over every character through costume. The camera dances around the characters with editing that shifts and stutters to accentuate ever dramatic beat. There are times when the high style can feel obnoxiously overdone, but for the most part it keeps the tale alive. Guadagnino’s talented eye and heightened sensibility provides drive and drama even when there is none. Then, when the proverbial shit hits the fan, the filmmaker is able to deliver with maximum visual impact.
The plot is intriguing, growing from cringe comedy into mild thriller territory, but the movie’s highlight is its characters. That’s what the energetic camera is intoxicated with and the performers are all perfectly cast. Swinton may be robbed of her voice, but that just allows her beautifully alien features and expressive eyes to carry more depth than her words. She looks the part of a performance art rock star and obviously has the chops to nail the damaged core of that particular character.
Matthias Schoenaerts is essentially a silent observer, but with a purpose that would be unfair to reveal. Safe to say, there’s a reason why a performer of his presence was required. Dakota Johnson once again proves than she’s a far better actress than anyone saddled with the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ franchise should be, and delights in disappearing into some perverse combination of nymphet and femme fatale.
However, despite the major talent all around him, the film is primarily the Ralph Fiennes show. The actor marches in to dominate the movie like a non-violent Ben Kingsley in ‘Sexy Beast’. He bounces around the screen with a keen ear for obnoxious character comedy, delivering massive monologues about working on old Rolling Stone tracks, while also subtly manipulating everyone around him like an expert music producer should. He masks dark intent behind a partying façade and it’s a fascinating performance to watch unfold.
‘A Bigger Splash’ serves up so many sumptuous images, colorful characters, and unpleasant secrets that it’s easy to get lost in like guests at a wild, if awkward party. In fact, the picture works so well as a hangout movie that it’s almost a shame to see it shift into genre territory for the last act. Granted, the movie needs somewhere to go as it even feels long at two hours. The trouble is that Guadagnino leans into heavy-handed symbolism with such blunt force that things get a little obnoxious when all the final statements are hammered home. It’s still a fun movie and even a strong one, just a whole that isn’t quite as satisfying as its fascinating parts. It’s also not nearly as deep as it thinks it is.
Still, those irritants aside, there’s a lot to love in ‘A Bigger Splash’ as a parade of pretty pictures containing a series of stunning performances. Just try not to think about it too much, even if the movie is practically begging you to overanalyze it.