Movie Review: A Bigger Splash (2016)


Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino’s English-language debut entitled A Bigger Splash takes place in a specifically chosen setting at a villa hillside getaway on Pantelleria, a volcanic island that’s suspended between Italy and Tunisia on the Strait of Sicily. Conceived as an overt homage if not a complete replication of Jacques Deray’s stylish romantic thriller La Piscine (1969) by screenwriter David Kajganich, the particular setting is one that’s meant to elucidate the central characters’ experiences relating to the island’s blend of social isolation, unapologetic hedonism, and a literal culture clash of language, food, and custom that remains thematically consistent throughout the beautifully indulgent, yet slightly empty, film. However, this subsequent emptiness, combined with the film’s various and vague endings, becomes a deliberate and pained acknowledgement toward the personally unfulfilling life of pure paganism. Self-fulfillment and satisfaction comes from the acceptance of natural limitations, and living the seminal rock n’ roll lifestyle of moving from pleasure to pleasure without any sense of consequence will eventually erode and arrive at its tragic end, whether it’s by your own hand or another.

That’s not exactly how the two leading characters are living their lives in the beginning of Guadagnino’s film. Rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton)—an androgynous, alien-like superstar reminiscent of the Ziggy Stardust era of David Bowie—has taken to isolation on the island to rest and heal her damaged voice while alongside her documentarian paramour Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) who has his own healing on the agenda in sobriety after a failed suicide attempt. Their erotic and seemingly idyllic existence of caking mud on each other’s bodies and constant love making is summarily attacked by the arrival of Marianne’s ex-lover and producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes), a bullying hurricane of pomposity and extravagance who exhausts everyone into eventually tolerating his unrestrained obnoxiousness veiled in forcible charm. All at once Marianne and Paul’s healing seclusion becomes a frustrated acceptance of Harry’s pleasurable revelry where he overtly flirts and tempts Marianne, engages in childish rivalry with Paul, and persists in unhealthy displays of affection with his towed along and ostensibly bored daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).


As unwelcome a guest as Harry might be, for Marianne, Paul, and audience alike, he’s a force that’s undeniable to admire. He overpowers everything, whether he’s gyrating to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” monopolizing and crooning into a karaoke machine at a local bar, or simply commanding or breaking the basic decorum of conversation in order to manipulate events to his liking, making him the life of the party at every party in existence. And yet, there’s a profound emptiness, or rather insecure unhappiness, at the heart of Harry, who deeply wants nothing more than to have Marianne back in his destructive clutches. It speaks volumes about the talents of Ralph Fiennes, who as of recently has adopted roles that touch upon the comically eccentric, from the likes of Gustav H. in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and the stuffy yet eloquent director Laurence Laurentz in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016). In A Bigger Splash, he filters this newfound eccentricity through a signature intensity that engulfs the screen with sheer presence. He is, undoubtedly, the spiritual and physical embodiment of the very rock n’ roll hedonism that both Marianne and Paul attempted to seclude themselves from, but can’t seem to escape.

And perhaps Marianne doesn’t want to escape it. She herself is like the island caught between two palpable realities, with Harry representing the unhinged lively sexuality of her recent performance past and the rehabilitated Paul who has become the source of her more controlled sensual present. Now that her voice, her career, and her cherished identity are in question of continuing—a voiceless handicap that was suggested by the phenomenal Tilda Swinton and performed throughout the film immaculately through pained rasps, frustrated utterances, and suggestive glances—it’s no surprise that she’d welcome, humor, or even succumb to the rambunctious temptations and sensual chaos of Harry. Of course it doesn’t help that her voiceless handicap lends herself to being controlled by other people’s desires, whether it’s Paul’s passive aggressive refusal to reiterate accurately her own words or Harry’s commanding personality. In one particular scene Marianne’s debilitating restraint and complexity of desire are shown through dramatic close-ups between her and Harry as they bicker in the street. She, and pretty much every character within the film, is caught between the desires she wants and the desires she needs, which is an entirely human struggle in attempting to distinguish the difference between them.



But unbridled sensuality, forbidden love, and questionable desire consistently runs through the creative veins of Guadagnino as a filmmaker, as evidenced from his previous features Melissa P. (2005) and I Am Love (2009), which the latter of the two also starred Swinton as an aristocrat who had a love affair with a chef. Personal shame, implicit seduction, and sexual tension permeate throughout his films, his characters, and his differing perspectives, always changing through manic non-judgmental camerawork of whip pans and racked focus that shines a light on the distinct subjectivity of human desire. It’s an aspect of his films that’s completely influenced by his homegrown Italian romantic predecessors, most notably the seminal works of Michelangelo Antonioni, a myriad of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman collaborations, and the always prescient and haunting ambiguity of Vittorio De Sica. And yet, Guadagnino in only a handful of films has developed his own signature style as a filmmaker of indulgence. All of the distractions from reality the island holds within A Bigger Splash has an erotic allure, whether it’s the delectable foods, the purity of both the female and male body, and the sun-scorched beauty of the island environment that surrounds them. And it’s all captured lusciously through the lens of returning cinematography collaborator Yorick Le Saux (I Am Love, Only Lovers Left Alive), which gives the film its delirious and hypnotizing visual splendor.

But Guadagnino knows that indulgence and pleasure are temporary realities, as evidenced by the impending tragedies that inevitably disrupt the succulent flow of his films. Distractions of pleasure have their own limitations, and even those who are in perpetual motion can’t completely ignore the harshness of reality on their periphery. In A Bigger Splash the privileged characters are caught up in sexual conquests, manipulative encounters, extravagant food, and beautiful scenery, and yet it’s all subtly interrupted by the inconvenient presence of refugees, whether it’s through random radio news reports or seeing them temporarily imprisoned in the background for the crime of seeking a better life. Guadagnino in his own way is attempting to show that the opulent lifestyle of the privileged is both a blessing in experiencing its pleasures, but also a curse in how it’s ultimately impermanent and unfulfilling. There are definitely multiple layers to this superbly strange, deliciously funny, and surprisingly tragic film, and its ability to defy typical resolution will leave most audience members feeling restive and uncomfortable. But that’s what makes this misadventure of four privileged people grasping onto the last vestiges of their indolence so thought-provoking and intriguing, because if our ingrained self-interest is to find pleasure and that pleasure is limited, are we then doomed to a state of emptiness? That’s for you to decide.

Grade: B+

One Response to “Movie Review: A Bigger Splash (2016)”
  1. Great review, really enjoyed reading it!

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