A Bigger Splash takes you to a location you've never visited and, by its end, leaves you feeling like you have. It's interesting, exotic, and erotic, incorporating the kind of casual European-style nudity that elevates our American pulses. And it stars Tilda Swinton and Ralph Fiennes. If you enjoyed Only Lovers Left Alive, consider this required viewing.
Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) directs this remake of Jacques Deray's La Piscine, but substantial changes have been made. The film is set on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, which lies substantially south of Italy, making it a frequent landing spot for refugees. These are people who have taken to the sea in the hopes of finding a place to restart their lives.
Their stories are important, but the focus here is not on them. Guadagnino keeps them in the background, while studying the dynamics of four privileged Westerners. You know, the way we like it in our movies. Westerners always make a bigger splash.
Marianne Lane (Swinton) is a rock star styled after David Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust days. She's had an operation on her throat and it's imperative that she speak in no more than a whisper until her recovery is finished. What seems like a major limitation on Swinton allows her to showcase her considerable skills in other ways. Her performance manages to be both cool and genuine.
Marianne's boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts, Rust and Bone) tends to her needs. He is protective, but cordial, a charming schoolboy grown into everything we currently celebrate about the male form. Schoenaerts looks like Ryan Gosling's ever-so-slightly less flashy brother. His performance is layered and well done.
Marianne and Paul's quiet time at the glorious pool at their villa is interrupted by the arrival of Harry (Fiennes), her record producer and ex-lover. Harry is brash times ten, the sort of guy who talks about how you have to just grab life and live it, and then proceeds to do so – in your face – until you want to strangle him. Henry jabbers nonstop, making inappropriate remarks and generally bugging the hell out of everyone except us.
That's the wonder of Ralph Fiennes. He's so good that even as I cringed over how he was spoiling everything for Marianne and Paul, I enjoyed watching him do it.
As if his demeanor wasn't disruptive enough, Henry has brought along his daughter, Penny (Dakota Johnson), who is 22 going on Lolita, posturing seductively around Paul, cozying up to her daddy, and making comments that are almost certainly snarky, but doing so with such a flat affect that you can't safely call her on them. Johnson's performance here is much better than the one she gave in Fifty Shades of Grey.
The movie deals with sexual politics. You needn't know any more than that. If you get involved with the characters and appreciate the sense of specificity of the location, you will likely be as swept away as I was. If not, you may get bored.
A few words about the nudity before I wrap this up. I know that in Europe people are much more relaxed about nudity in films, but we're in America, where celebrity skin is still a big deal. I don't know why we're so interested in the genitalia of famous people, but we are. A Bigger Splash gives us a look at the rarely-seen bits of all four of the leads. Ralph Fiennes penis and testicles get the most screen time. They're perfectly average, except that they're attached to Ralph Fiennes, which ups their groovy factor. Beyond being fun to peek at, they actually add to the film. Late in the story there's a confrontation at the pool between a partially clad Paul and a naked Harry. Harry's nudity enhances the primal situation. At once he seems both brazen and vulnerable. There's an erotic undercurrent as well, unless I just imagined it.
A Bigger Splash takes you somewhere exotic, showcases fine actors, creates a fascinating atmosphere and shows a little skin. I appreciate it.