Like Susanne Bier, Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino spins diverting enough yarns of outsized emotion from extraordinary circumstances. His English-language debut, A Bigger Splash, is high concept from the get-go, introducing Tilda Swinton as Marianne Lane, a Bowie-sized rock legend who, it’s implied, has blown out her vocal cords at one packed stadium show too many. Following surgery, Marianne convalesces in a hillside mansion on Pantelleria—the gorgeous island between Tunisia and Italy—with her sullen documentarian paramour, Paul (Matthias Schoenarts), himself recovering from a botched suicide attempt and a decades-long drinking problem.
The pair’s sense of escape is barely established before it’s under attack by a drop-in from Marianne’s histrionic ex, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), accompanied by a daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), about whose existence he only just found out. Harry wastes no time in his go-for-broke crusade to win Marianne back, while Penelope—ostensibly bored by the scenery and lived-in luxury of her new “family”—wastes hers making eyes in Paul’s direction.
One of the shrewder observations in David Kajganich’s screenplay is the way Marianne’s inability to speak allows her to be overridden by other people’s whims and desires. Swinton, who allegedly suggested the handicap, makes the most of it in cockeyed looks and faint rasps, each one upping the given moment’s suspense for the audience, but it’s easy to see where a lesser performer would have made her a hollow vessel.
If Marianne is the film’s brittle foundation, then Harry its malfunctioning nerve center—rapacious in his obnoxiousness, yet the de facto life of ever party he happens to crash. Fiennes’s performance ties itself into knots making all the contradictions land plausibly, giving perhaps too much life to a character as beholden to the good old days (producing Stones records, doing blow in the green room with Marianne) as he is desperate to convince the people around him that there’s still some sand left in the hourglass.
Though A Bigger Splash is a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 poolside potboiler La Piscine, it would appear to have more canonical works on the brain. Digestible allusions are drawn to the emotional volcanoes of Rosselini’s collaborations with Ingrid Bergman and the marble-pedestal ennui of Antonioni’s pre-Zabriskie Point masterworks, while the screenplay winds down with a morose bureaucratic finale, besotted with the same expatriate queasiness and compromising circumstances as the Italian version of Vittorio De Sica’s Indiscretion of an American Wife.
As in those films, the air is rife with shame and sex. The filmmakers take inventory of their seductions (fame, glamor, artistic sublimity, unselfconscious youth, that second chance at life, and so on), only to autopsy them the morning after as overripe delusions of the avant-rich. What intrigues, if in a lurid sort of way, is the film’s fudging of projected viewer desires with its characters’: The filmmakers stake a position too close to these excesses to finger-wag anybody on either side of the camera, which zooms, whip-pans, rack-focuses, and settles with a lusty, manic intentionality to match the scatterbrained, anything-goes mentality of the story’s gilded seaside milieu.
Near every plot twist is a responsibility shrugged off or a decadence rationalized, the most extreme instance of which is the plausibility-stretching murder that spikes the narrative. In a kind of hushed proximity to Marianne’s villa, the Mediterranean’s migrant crisis (for instance, death statistics blaring casually from a radio while an old woman shows David and Marianne her secret for making the best risotto) is a thematic strand less embedded than held in parallel until the story needs it. None will deny that A Bigger Splash’s hat-tips to external reality ramp up the political import of the story’s home stretch; the question is whether the point really needed belaboring in the first place, given that the refugees never break out of the story’s periphery.
For all the hand-wringing that follows Penelope’s frank overtures and the concurrent possibility of David successfully wooing Marianne, Paul’s decision to sleep with the ingénue takes place entirely off screen—one of many wasted opportunities for the filmmakers to give Schoenaerts something to do beyond squinting and pouting like a hurt Great Dane. In an epoch when consumers are increasingly looking to their superstars of choice for self-worth and political solidarity, the film asks a timely question (intentionally or otherwise): What price would you pay to be a part of a famous person’s drama?