Although ostensibly a remake of Jaques Deray’s 1967 La Piscine (The Swimming Pool), Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash owes far more, stylistically, to the 1964 David Hockney painting with which it shares a name. The Hockney piece masterfully generates a moment of tension through its use of colour, framing, and a strict control of what information the audience has. Guadagnino’s film could be described the same way. It’s a brooding erotic drama teeming with beauty and unsettling tension that brings a disturbance to the picturesque.
A Bigger Splash centres itself on a group of four. Rockstar Marianne (Tilda Swinton) and her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) are holidaying on a beautiful Italian island while she recovers from a throat operation, when her producer and ex-boyfriend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) shows up with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), disturbing their holiday and disrupting their relationship. Very little follows in way of a plot, until the final act. It’s a hugely character driven piece that revels in its lascivious atmosphere rather than any formal narrative.
The film quickly delves into a study of passion, jealousy, and love. Guadagnino has mastered the art of the erotic shot. He liberally lathers each frame with a charged sexuality, which, rather than evaporating or simply disappearing, adds up to create an atmosphere of desire. His long lenses and short depth of field offer a beautiful sense of intimacy, and more often than not find themselves focussing not on faces, but on scantily clad and beautiful limbs, chests, and behinds. Skin tones often make up the majority of a frame. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shoots the landscape (the island of Pantelleria) with just as much reverence and awe of its beauty, but uses wide angles to admire its scope and vividity in a more encapsulating sense.
But although it’s a beautifully shot picture about beautiful people in a beautiful place, there is something palpable bubbling away under the surface. It’s this unmistakeable unease that takes the film to a higher place. A Hitchcockian tension introduces itself at the moment Harry arrives, engendered by a myriad of sexual dynamics between every character and feeding on an almost total lack of communication. Marianne’s operation has left her unable to talk (a condition conceived by Tilda Swinton herself), Paul doesn’t seem to want to talk, Harry talks too much, and Penelope talks in riddles. The screenplay excels in abusing these conditions to create genuinely interesting and unique dynamics between all of the four main characters, and each relationship has its own different balances and imbalances.
Exceptional performances from the entire lead cast drive home these interrelationships. Swinton, playing a very deep role without using her her voice, uses her body and face superbly, and Fiennes continues his comedic renaissance with a lively and humourous performance.
There are times, however, when the film is undermined by odd decisions. It’s scored by a fascinating but jarring combination of rock songs and John Adams compositions; it would have been stronger if it picked one and stuck to it. Both music styles end up as half-motifs, not really standing for anything on their own. Bigger problems come in the third act, where it loses its scintillating focus and becomes grey and unsure. It abandons its crowning glory, the masterful and unremitting tension which defines the film, and concerns itself with extraneous plot. The story becomes weaker, the characters become weaker, and it falls into cliché at points.
A Bigger Splash is a unique and enthralling film from a director who clearly understands the language of cinema, and is a gorgeous viewing experience. Don’t expect to always understand what’s going on, though.