mon 17/06/2024

A Bigger Splash | reviews, news & interviews

A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash

Last tango in Pantelleria

Four-way street: (l to r) Matthias Schoenaerts, Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Ralph Fiennes

A "guests-from-hell" saga on a panoramic scale, Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash is a reworking of Jacques Deray's 1969 sex-and-jealousy movie La Piscine. The action has been transported from the south of France to the island of Pantelleria in the Strait of Sicily, where rock icon Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating after a throat operation with her filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts).

The couple sprawl luxuriously and nakedly around the pool at their idyllic island eyrie, where the view offers both craggy hillsides and sun-baked plains stretching away to the sparkling Mediterranean. However, the heat-haze is rudely ripped asunder by the whirlwind arrival of Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who announces himself with an in-flight phone call, demanding to be met at the airport. He greets Marianne like a long-lost lover, and just happens to have brought his sulky blonde daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson, pictured below) along for the ride. To Marianne's indignation, the bumptious, controlling Harry even takes it upon himself to invite a couple of extra guests of his own, Mireille and Sylvie.

Marianne's villa begins to turn from a safe haven to an emotional combat zone as tension and menace entwine like the grapevines adorning the terraces. Marianne and record producer Harry are indeed former – or perhaps not entirely former – lovers, and it's evidently Harry's mission to reclaim what he still considers to be his personal property from Paul. Penelope, who has been living with her mother in the States and has only recently made Harry's acquaintance, radiates a pouty, nihilistic destructiveness as she unsubtly sets about penetrating Paul's affectations of disinterest. The camera strokes itself languidly across an expanse of thigh, a bronzed torso or a hillock of cleavage. 

There isn't a lot of plot to fill the two-hours-and-a-bit running time, but there's plenty of room for some pungent characterisation, while the landscape – exotic, barren and mysterious – bakes under the torrid southern sun with an air of debilitating threat. Even Schoenaerts's self-contained watchfulness eventually starts to crumble (he's a recovering alcoholic, and more fragile than he looks).

Swinton (pictured below with Schoenaerts) would surely not be an automatic choice for a rock legend, but she expands magisterially into the role, and the fact that she's barely able to speak throws the emphasis onto her translucent skin, gangling frame and almost kabuki-like facial expressions (you could picture her as Bowie in the inevitable biopic). Guadagnino wisely doesn't push her into full-scale performance sequences, merely giving us glimpses of her running out onstage in a crowded football stadium, and a flash of her at a recording session where she resembles Mo Tucker singing with the Velvet Underground (there's another moment where she's in a black wig, and is a dead ringer for Chrissie Hynde).    

It's Harry who gets free rein to do the showbiz showboating (as Marianne comments, "he doesn't like limits"). He's obsessed with the mystique of the Rolling Stones, whom he has supposedly produced, and the director has given him an extended dance routine to "Emotional Rescue" which is virtually a self-contained promo clip. A karaoke scene in a local bar, where he sings Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" as a smoochy duet with Penelope, surely contravenes all kinds of EU child protection statutes.  

The sexual gamesmanship eventually goes beyond the point of no return, and wreaks a trail of destruction through the increasingly unbalanced ensemble. Yet while the pain is real enough, Guadagnino lightens the load with irony and black humour. Not least there's the way Marianne's superstar charisma is all the evidence the local police chief needs to consider as he makes his climactic determinations – he has plenty more on his mind, since his tiny force is overwhelmed by the stream of migrants arriving from nearby Tunisia. This intrusion of real-world headlines throws mocking light on the indulgent self-absorption of our protagonists. 

While the pain is real enough, Guadagnino lightens the load with irony and black humour


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Didn't work for me. The trouble was that Fiennes' performance felt as loathsome as the character he was playing (difficult, I know, to separate the two), and even Tilda, looking fabulous in those dresses, overacted a bit at times. Having a scene with her trying to sing in a recording studio was a mistake (and it didn't need to be there). Didn't care for any of 'em. Afraid I cheered the denouement. Good use of various types of music, though.

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