A BIGGER SPLASH
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriter: David Kajganich
Runtime: 124 mins.
Australian release date: 24 March 2016
Previewed at: Sony Theatrette, Sydney, on 25 February 2016.
Rock legend Marianne Laine (Tilda Swinton) is recovering from throat surgery on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) when their idyll is shattered by the arrival of her ex, record producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). Harry is like some kind of manic elemental sprite, a maddening ball of energy, a living manifestation of the id who can’t or won’t shut up. His ‘stream of consciousness’ verbosity is exaggerated even more by Marianne’s silence - she’s under doctor’s orders to stay quiet until her vocal chords heal - but underneath Harry’s cheery bonhomie lurks a dark schemer with a desperate plan on his mind.
Luca Guadagnino’s) latest film, A Bigger Splash, is based on Jacques Deray’s 1969 cult drama La Piscine, with the Italian island between Sicily and Tunisia replacing the Côte d’Azur’s St. Tropez as location. It’s an important change, as the isolation enforced by the volcanic, wind-blasted island’s landscape has a significant effect on the lives of all four protagonists. Semi-trapped in their villa, the sexual tension increases as Harry flirts with Marianne and Penelope leans on Paul, while Marianne and Paul try to keep up the tight relationship they were enjoying before the interlopers arrived. It’s a combustible situation and, naturally enough, as the explosive vapours rise it doesn’t take much of a spark to ignite them - but the blast, when it comes, is still quite shocking.
All four leads in A Bigger Splash are exceptional in their roles. Fiennes’ performance, in particular, is a tour de force. There’s a fabulous scene in which Harry is regaling the group with the story of how he collaborated with The Rolling Stones in the recording of a track on Voodoo Lounge. To put his audience in the right ‘zone’ he cranks up Emotional Rescue and does the best ‘Dad dance’ you are ever likely to see! This alone is worth the price of admission. Schoenaerts, too, is perfectly cast as the wounded Paul, a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to put his life back together after a recent suicide attempt. A future with Marianne figures largely in his plans for recovery and you can see the doubt in his eyes when Harry stirs up old memories of the singer’s time with him as she responds to his advances. Swinton does wonderful things with her character’s silence. A friend of Guadagnino’s for some 20 years, it was her idea to make Marianne mostly mute and the result is terrific - she provides just the right counterpoint to Harry’s loquaciousness, and the right stillness to contrast with his constant movement. Dakota Johnson gives the confused child/woman Penelope real flesh and blood as she tries to figure out who she is and where she belongs.
Ultimately, this is a film about growing up, about maturing into adulthood, and the life that must be left behind when that happens. Some people struggle with it, some people refuse to let it happen. It’s a film about making choices, a mature film about some pretty immature people, people who aren’t even that likeable a lot of the time. Still, in the steady hands of Guadagnino, you get to spend a couple of hours watching these privileged people wrestle with the same decisions that we mere mortals have to face, too. In doing so, you realise that none of us are much different from each other once the glitter and glamour of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is stripped away.