Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writer: David Kajganich
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson.
Last Sunday my friends and I wanted to go to the movies, but were a bit disappointed by the offerings, which included unfortunately just a bunch of dumb sequels and remakes. Then we saw that a small theater over a half hour away was offering A Bigger Splash, a movie that had been on my radar for quite some time and I convinced my friends to make the trek and give the film a shot. The reason I was so insistent to go see this film? Aside from the fact that I absolutely worship Tilda Swinton and would honestly watch her breathe (oh wait, isn’t that what she did at the MoMA?) I was blown away from the last time she appeared in a film by Luca Guadagnino. In 2009 I saw a little Italian film called Io sono l’amore (I Am Love) and fell deeper in love with the actress and took note of the filmmaker; together the two had crafted a great dramatic film with shades of a thriller, and had entertained and impressed me thoroughly. The mere idea of the two collaborating again was enough to get me to watch the film, I just had to convince my friends to go with me, and luckily I did. Why did I wait almost a week to write this review? Honestly, because I needed a few days to really think about what I watched and to organize my thoughts, as the viewing of this film was such an experience that I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it justice immediately. I’m still not sure I can, but I suddenly felt compelled to write about it today.
The film takes place on the gorgeous island of Pantelleria, a small volcanic island off the southwestern Sicilian coast, closer to Tunisia than to Italy. Even though the film takes place in Italy, none of the cast members are Italian, which highlights the way the island is best known as: a tourist destination for wealthy foreigners. Taking a vocal and physical rest after throat surgery, worldwide singing sensation Marianne Lane (a cross between David Bowie and Madonna) and her Belgian boyfriend Paul relax quietly, sunbathing by the pool, easily grocery shopping in town, and making love at all times of day. Their idyllic escape is interrupted by the loud and riotous Harry Hawkes, Marianne’s music producer and former lover, and his recently discovered daughter Penelope. Harry brings a jolt of energy and distress to the simple ecosystem constructed by the couple. While Marianne seems to welcome her friend, Paul is more resistant to the shifting dynamics. Harry is oblivious to any discomfort, he just wants to have fun and keep things moving. His daughter, observant yet aloof, sees other people only in terms of how she can manipulate them – she is as destructive as she is disinterested. Fans of fast paced action films may find themselves bored by the film, but they would be missing the riveting events in the film and the excellent scenes which are propelled forward by jealousy, mistrust, lust, and a myriad of other emotions and sins.
I was particularly taken by Guadagnino’s choice of camera shots in the film. You have panoramic shots, closeups, actors looking direct to camera, steady cam, handheld, Antonioni-esque framing, even transitions to mimic the taking off of sunglasses, first person perspectives, underwater shots, etc. In the hands of anyone else this constant shift in filmmaking could be read as the attempt of a filmmaker just to show off and showcase a variety of abilities, but not here. Each and every stylistic choice reads as deliberate and necessary, and absolutely stunning. The locations are breathtaking and match the tone and feeling of the scenes that are playing out, from frantic driving through twisty hills to sharp rocks surrounding a crystal clear water pond, each spot perfectly matched the actions of the characters.
Speaking about the characters, a word must be said about how phenomenal the cast is. Anyone paying attention to the past thirty years or so of cinema knows by now what a formidable actress Tilda Swinton is. Time and again, she is able to tap into a seemingly unending reservoir of characters and emotions, but I must say that this is perhaps he best role yet. Playing an almost entirely mute character, Swinton’s Marianne is not just beautiful, alluring, mysterious, and captivating – she is also fragile, so sexy, demure, weak, forceful, and naive. Basically Swinton has created one of the most compelling and complex female characters in the history of cinema, and I give her all this power because in fact that character was as much a creation of Swinton’s as it was of the writer and the director of the film – it was Swinton’s idea, in fact, to make Marianne mute, on vocal rest, and the last scene of the film showcases how brilliant and perfect of a choice that was. That said, Swinton is not the only cast member and the rest of the company is also very strong. Matthias Schoenaerts finally shines in an English language production. It’s interesting that I finally take notice of the actor once he’s playing a character much less fussy or showy than his usual roles in period pieces with extravagant costumes and over the top personas (The Danish Girl, A Little Chaos, Suite Française, Far from the Madding Crowd). Ralph Fiennes, an actor I have adored since Schindler’s List, as of late has been turning out performances that are just too extreme and cartoonish (The Grand Budapest Hotel or Hail, Caesar!), his performance as Harry is also nutty and high energy, but the actor manages to ground him, pulling back just as things get too crazy or wild, a restrained performance of someone so clearly unrestrained and uncontainable. The cast is rounded out by Dakota Johnson, an actress I apparently have seen in a number of films (Black Mass, for example) but who has never really registered with me. I actively avoided her star-making role in Fifty Shades of Grey, so this was the first time I ever really took notice of her. She clearly has a lot of growing to do and maturing as an actor, but I saw potential in her and she did a pretty decent job with the Lolita-esque character she played.
The film is dark and twisty and the last act is interesting and gripping, an all around resounding success. The film is also really sexy and erotic, but it never felt cheap, tawdry, or gratuitous. Every character shows a good deal of nudity, but it never felt exploitative, instead it felt necessary and cannot be objected. I know that at times I come off as militant or prudish in this blog as I lament about the depiction of women and nudity on screen, but I just am dissatisfied by how lazy filmmakers are and how the male gaze cannot get out of its own (gross) way. In this film each character’s body language, disposition, and mannerisms are also reflected in how the showcase their nude bodies: Marianne is unabashed but there is a fragility to her sexuality, Paul is only comfortable with himself in the privacy of domesticity (the first thing he comments when Harry and Penelope arrive is that he and Marianne can no longer be nude), Harry is without shame and nudity is another way to shock and gain attention, while Penelope is flamboyant but betrayed by naivety and an underlying innocence and reticence. The usage of nudity adds yet another layer to these already fully formed and compellingly complex characters. An already perfect film, Guadagnino and Kajganich (the film’s screenwriter) also add a quiet motif in regards to multiculturalism and racism to the film. The island’s location in the Mediterranean also makes it a locus amoenus in regards to the topic of emigration/immigration. The film never focuses its lens on this issue (as opposed to films such as Emanuele Crialese’s Terraferma), but it doesn’t have to – it’s there, it’s looming, and it’s noticeable even if refrained and implied. The complexities of this film are unending (there is even a theme of communism in the film I have yet to figure out, but palpably noticeable throughout from Harry’s tattoo of the Soviet star, hammer, and sickle to a cleaning lady singing the Italian partisan resistance song “Bella ciao”), but I will stop my effusive musings here.
A Bigger Splash is a visual masterpiece of a film and whether it is acclaimed or quickly forgotten it has made a strong impression on me. It’s a film I won’t soon forget, and I can easily see it showing up on my year end list of my favorite films of 2016, if not of the decade. Visually arresting and overall extremely compelling, I loved every minute of the film and cannot sing its praises enough, but because I have been going on long enough, I will anyways.