A Bigger Splash is an erotic-thriller based on Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969). Tilda Swinton stars as Marianne Lane, a rock star recuperating from vocal surgery on a gorgeous, remote Italian island with her boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). Her blissful retreat from the pressures of fame is interrupted when a former flame, an intense record producer named Harry (Ralph Fiennes), arrives with his newly discovered twenty-two year old daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson). When Harry invites himself and Penelope to stay at Marianne and Paul’s villa, this odd foursome of emotionally damaged individuals suddenly finds themselves slowly simmering under the blazing sun in an ancient, volcanic environment. And stuff happens.
This is one of those movies where wealthy, glamorous, miserable people hang around an exotic coastal landscape and alternate between being playful and horrible to each other—like Otto Preminger and Arthur Laurents’ sophisticated melodrama Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Paul Schrader and Harold Pinter’s intellectual psychodrama The Comfort of Strangers (1990), and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s austere study in bourgeois alienation By the Sea (2015). I personally relish this type of movie, though in most cases (including the three I just listed) they’re elegantly photographed curiosities rather than good films. But A Bigger Splash is a very good film. Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) and screenwriter David Kajganich provide the solid narrative arc that pictures of this sort so often lack. They update Deray’s original, which is plenty dark and hedonistic itself, to create a truly bleak but funny, controlled yet decadent, beautiful film about ugly behavior.
The spectacular scenery, photography, and design pale in comparison to the vibrancy of the performances. All four leads are remarkable, approaching their roles with the fullest commitment and with divergent styles that manage to coexist perfectly. Swinton, whose character can’t speak much, is totally contained in an almost silent performance. Fiennes plays the polar opposite, a guy who never shuts up. While Marianne must do most of her communicating with looks and gestures, Harry prances and preens, sings and dances—touching, provoking, and manipulating everyone in his path. But in both cases, we learn everything about these people by observing their interactions, not by what they say or don’t say. We get the sense that if Marianne had her voice back she probably wouldn’t add much to the few words she does speak, and if Harry ever stopped moving and talking he’d become engulfed by his deeply suppressed unhappiness. Compared to Swinton and Fiennes, two titans of screen acting, Schoenaerts and Johnson are slightly less dynamic, but their characters are equally fascinating. We get drawn into the interplay of whatever combination of personalities is on screen at any given point. This slow-paced, 124-minute picture never feels monotonous or unfocused. The immediacy of each character’s needs and the vital, go-for-broke quality of each actor’s performance make for a rare cerebral film that’s full of vitality and life.