DIR: Luca Guadagnino • WRI: David Kajganich • PRO: Michael Costigan, Luca Guadagnino • DOP: Yorick Le Saux • ED: Walter Fasano • DES: Maria Djurkovic • CAST: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaert
After their ravishing 2009 collaboration I am Love, director Luca Guadagnino and leading lady Tilda Switon have reconvened for an equally glamorous, but looser and loopier melodrama with A Bigger Splash. Less an adaptation of than a series of riffs upon Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, A Bigger Splash gifts Swinton with an otherworldly queen bee part that seems tailored to her strengths, and finds outlandish new things to do with Ralph Fiennes. If the film’s collection of frissons is ultimately less satisfying than the knockout punch of I am Love, it’s still as enjoyable, refreshing, and ever-so-slightly discombobulating as a good holiday.
Swinton plays fictitious rock icon Marianne Lane (equal parts David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Chrissie Hynde), who is recovering from vocal chord surgery, and consequently cannot raise her voice above a throaty whisper. To recuperate, she has retreated to the Italian island of Pantelleria with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) – only for their impeccably stylish idyll to be rudely interrupted by Marianne’s former manager/lover/enabler Harry (Fiennes), who arrives uninvited, and with his sullenly provocative newfound daughter Penelope (Johnson) in tow.
The scene is thus set for all manner of smouldering permutations and recriminations, as the quartet circle each other in various predator/prey configurations until somebody ends up face down in the swimming pool around which they habitually congregate. Guadagnino, however, is plainly less concerned with the ‘suspense film’ dynamics of his story than with conjuring a particular sinister insouciance within which his very game cast can romp about.
Of the leads, Swinton and Fiennes give object lessons in the benefits of playing to and against type, respectively. Simply watching Swinton occupy space on screen has always been a fascinating proposition, since her remarkable extended wordless take in Derek Jarman’s War Requiem (1989). Guadagnino is plainly too fascinated by her singular way of moving – and by her just-so Raf Simons wardrobe – to ask anything as austerely demanding of her here, but there’s a limber grace to her near-silent performances that contrasts intriguingly with her constricted voice. Fiennes, on the other hand, is thrillingly obnoxious – always voluble and frequently stark naked, he is the very definition of the unwanted house guest. It’s as fascinating to watch him foisted on others as it is horrifying to imagine him in one’s own home.
Johnson – who was ill-represented by the unbearably naff Fifty Shades of Grey – makes the most of every opportunity to smoulder and sulk. Crucially, however, she also brings shading and nuance to a character (played by a kittenish Jane Birkin in Deray’s film) who could easily have had none. Schoenaerts draws the short straw. While he and Swinton have a screen-fogging physical chemistry, he seems reluctant to enter into the swing of Guadagnino’s tangy melodramatics. While some of the reticence is undoubtedly his character’s, at other points the odd discomfort looks more like his own.
The ever-lovely Aurore Clément has a sly small role, and Corrado Guzzanti enjoys himself as the local Carabinieri, but the key supporting player here is Pantelleria itself – volcanically beautiful, and regally indifferent to the petty squabbles of the mere mortals who inhabit it. On the subject of regal indifference, Guadagnino’s gestures toward the hardships of illegal migrants entering Europe through the island never quite slot into the rest of the film. This strand dangles underdeveloped, which may be an intriguing statement on the issue in its own right – but which also has the unfortunate side effect of swelling the running time of a film that could probably have benefitted from leaving 15 minutes on the cutting-room floor.
These are minor complaints, though, when A Bigger Splash as a whole is such a sly treat. Like the David Hockey painting from which it – otherwise inexplicably – takes its title, the film mesmerises through its own glassy superficiality. The pristine surface exudes good taste and – somehow, almost subliminally – hints at a sinister layer just beyond our reach.
15A (See IFCO for details)
A Bigger Splash is released 12th February 2016